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Is a Tainter-Style Collapse in Our Future?

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Gloom, doom, and apocalyptic musings seem to be a permanent feature of modern society. But we’ve had more in the way of dystopian movies and talk of imperial decline in the last ten years than in the preceding ten.

Quite a few readers have taken to mentioning Joseph Tainter’s classic, The Collapse of Complex Societies, in comments, a sign it might be worth discussing formally.

Tainter, an archeologist, developed his thesis out of his considerable dissatisfaction with prevailing collapse theories, which he duly enumerates and shreds.

His argument is straightforward:

1. Human societies are problem solving organizations

2. Sociopolitical systems require energy for their maintenance

3. Increasing complexity carries with it increased cost per capita

3. Investment in sociopolitical complexity often reaches a point of declining marginal returns

This section gives a good overview:
There are two general factors that combine to make a society vulnerable to collapse when investment in

complexity begins to yield a declining marginal return. First, stress and perturbation are a constant feature of any complex society, always occurring somewhere in its territory. Such a society will have a developed an operating regulatory apparatus this is designed to deal with such things as localized agricultural failures, border conflicts, and unrest. Since such continuous, localized stress can be expected to recur with regularity, it can, to a degree, be anticipated and prepared for. Major, unexpected stress surges, however, will also occur given enough time, as such things as climactic changes and foreign incursions take place. To meet these major stresses, the society must have some kind of net reserve. This can take the form of excess productive capacities in agriculture, energy, or minerals, or hoarded surpluses from past production. Stress surges of great magnitude cannot be accommodated without such a reserve.

Yet a society experiencing declining marginal returns is investing even more heavily in a strategy that is yielding proportionately less. Excess productive capacity will at some point be used up, and accumulated surpluses allocated to current operating needs. There is, then, little or no surplus with which to counter major adversities. Unexpected stress surges must be dealt with out of the current operating budget, often ineffectually, and always to the detriment of the system as a whole. Even if the stress is successfully met, the society is weakened in the process, and made even more vulnerable to the next crisis. Once a complex society develops the vulnerabilities of declining marginal returns, collapse may merely require sufficient passage of time to render probable the occurrence of an insurmountable calamity.

Secondly, declining marginal returns make complexity a less attractive problem-solving strategy. When marginal returns decline, the advantages to complexity become ultimately no greater (for society as a whole) than those for less costly social forms. The marginal cost of evolution to a higher level of complexity, or of remaining at the present level, is high compared to the alternative of disintegration.

Under such conditions, the option to decompose (that is, to sever the ties that link localized groups to a regional entity) become attractive to certain components of a complex society. As marginal returns deteriorate, tax rates rise with less and less return to the local level. Irrigation systems go untended, bridges and roads are not kept up, and the frontier is not adequately defended. Many of the social units that comprise a complex society perceive increased advantage to a strategy of independence, and begin to pursue their own immediate goals rather than long-term goals of the hierarchy. Behavioral interdependence gives way to behavioral independence, requiring the hierarchy to allocating still more of a shrinking resource base to legitimation and/or control.

As much as this argument is very persuasive, Tainter rejects explanations that rely on cultural factors (he takes the anthropologist’s view that preferring more complex societies for their cultural achievements is a form of chauvinism and has no place in good social science). But some cultures promote cooperation and lower legitimatization costs. Look at how Japan has endured a reversal of fortunes with far more grace than America would take a similar period of stagnation.

Similarly, if you look at America, the neoclassical economists started promoting their vision of society as composed of individuals operating in markets and government as inherently suspect, back in the 1950s, in a period of rising prosperity when no signs of incipient collapse were evident. So how do organizations and ideologies that undermine some of the key elements of a complex society (effective regulation, for instance) in a period of abundance fit into this picture?

More generally, what do you see as the strengths and limitations of Tainter’s theory?

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  1. Foppe

    First of all, cultural achievement (having a really big colorful feathered tail) is something entirely different from promoting cultural cohesion through building in redundancy (having 2 kidneys), so his argument that cultural complexity counts for nothing definitely mistakes the content for the form.
    Also, a BBC documentary (“The Trap”) argued (moderately persuasively) that we should understand the rise of Nash’s game theoretical thinking as something following from his paranoia merging with worries caused by the cold war, which was then “recognized” to beautifully fit the centuries-old notions of homo economicus. Broad adoption of this kind of thinking only really began during Milton Friedman’s years, and was broadly adopted under Reagan — hardly a period without economic problems — in which our communicative abilities allowed us to explain these problems away as not being caused by our mode of societal organization (which was “rational”). So yes, ideology and communication do strongly affect how we prepare for the future and look at the problems existing in the present, and — in times of prosperity — this allow a society to very quickly and effectively force the whole of society to stop investing in and maintaining redundancies, even though this will be costly once a problem period starts (especially a quickly developing one due to a long period of overspecialization or over-exploitation).
    I haven’t read his book, though I am somewhat familiar with the complex systems thinking of the SFI, but from what you quote here I’m not really enthused about his idea of “increasing marginal returns” (point 4). It is true that some of the increased costs of maintaining a society come from the creation of new systems that are supposed to promote redundancy (medical research etc.); but the problem is that these are then able to claim far more of the resources than is wise (due to perceived status differences), without really contributing to overall stability. This does not really seem to be a function of complexity so much, (3) as one of unequal distribution of the current resources that is being allowed by the other members of society because they feel it is a. a defensible use of resources that would or could not otherwise be used more usefully (even though this will affect future security, but this isn’t thought of in good years, in which ‘exploit’ seems the best strategy), or b. because it is /thought/ ‘important’ to stability, or because these systems enjoy high social status. Most of today’s instability has come from feedback loops creating ever more inequality because these high status individuals wanted ever more of the available resources, while the fact that the past decades were “good years” was at the same time used to argue for cutting back on investments in redundancy (via cutting welfare, not investing in pension funds, etc.). And now, of course, even fewer resources are allocated to ‘upkeep’ and redundancy because “these are lean times”, even though the leanness is in large part a feature of the inequalities that exist in distribution, rather than due to actual resource shortage. The two big problems for this discussion are probably how to understand the role money plays in all of this, because it seems hard to capture in this paradigm, and to understand how communication affects which strategies we take and how we distribute resources.
    Lastly, human societies are not problem solving organizations, they’re a solution that is given to the problem of how to organize — which creates constant conflicts because of the status differences that the members think exist and are relevant to the question of how to distribute the goods. The locus of problem solving is primarily at the individual level, where people worry about “how to improve my own security”. This is then answered either by “ok, let’s work with and try to support the system we have” or (Friedman, neoclassicism) “let’s just be parasitical on the system and not care about whether it might break because I really deserve as much of the resource pie as I can get”.

  2. Externality

    Many of the social units that comprise a complex society perceive increased advantage to a strategy of independence, and begin to pursue their own immediate goals rather than long-term goals of the hierarchy. Behavioral interdependence gives way to behavioral independence, requiring the hierarchy to allocating still more of a shrinking resource base to legitimation and/or control.

    I would look at it from the opposite perspective.

    As the hierarchy becomes more complex, those at the top begin to deprioritize, ignore, or act against the wishes and best interests of average individuals and most small groups. A congressperson stops caring about their constituents, prioritizing instead the concerns of lobbyists, donors, colleagues, social acquaintances, etc. Simply put, the people at the top no longer need to care about those at the bottom to have a successful career. Their day-to-day contacts will help them stay in office, and if necessary, get them a sinecure somewhere.

    Eventually, individuals and increasingly large local groups conclude that they have no obligation to a hierarchy that no longer knows or cares what they want. If they no longer feel like “part of the team,” they begin to prioritize their well-being, and the well-being of friends and neighbors, over the needs of a distant, impersonal government. Many will begin to exercise independent judgment on various issues, ignoring “the process” and/or “experts.” While the government can rely on the carrot (e.g., money) or the stick (Homeland Security, FBI, etc.) to get compliance, the government’s job becomes more difficult and incurs more resentment and non-compliance (e.g., “no snitching” movements).

    A recent article in the Huffington Post suggests that the elites in NY and DC are beginning to resent their loss of moral authority among Americans:

    Finally, and perhaps the best example of all, Bai tells us that it is only a “destructive idea” — not reality — to believe “that there is Washington and there is the rest of us.” Yes, we’re expected to believe that’s all just a horrible misperception by the Great Unwashed outside the Beltway. This, at a time when more citizens than ever correctly feel D.C. has become totally disconnected from America; at a time when census data shows that the nation’s capital has become a virtual gated community for the super-rich; at a time when election after election after election has become a backlash to the odious culture of D.C.; at a time when policies that are wildly popular among Americans (the public option) have no chance of passing Congress, but policies that are wildly popular with D.C. lobbyists (big corporate tax cuts) are all but guaranteed to pass.

    1. Toby

      “As the hierarchy becomes more complex, those at the top begin to deprioritize, ignore, or act against the wishes and best interests of average individuals and most small groups.”

      I agree, but why does this happen?

      To my mind (and the answer is mentioned by Foppe) the cause of this dynamic is any money-type based on debt and therefore scarcity/competition, which stokes societal ‘progress’ in a particular direction — to calcifying hierarchies and entrenched rich-poor divides. Money-as-debt over-rewards and over-punishes, such that material wealth becomes ‘success’ and poverty becomes ‘failure.’ One is full of all the goodies society can provide, the other painfully absent them, “painfully” because the poor know full well how the rich live, at least the myth of rich lifestyles, the supposedly necessary carrot that supposedly makes us work hard.

      Money is society’s distributor of goods and services. Unless we have an intelligent and wise money-type, one capable of functioning alongside abundance and which therefore fosters cooperation, we will always have rising and falling empires as catastrophic events. The tendency for institutions to become vested interests defending the status quo du jour, blindly refusing to adapt to inescapable change, would be far less evident were money spent into existence, with a demurrage slapped on it, its role as final arbiter demoted, its definition and myth decoupled from wealth (wealth arises out of health societal and environmental conditions, and cannot actually be money).

      The question is, can we get wise culturally then transition smoothly to a more democratic and egalitarian system? Or must we endure systemic wipe-out and terrible ecosystem degradation before we wake up? I fear the latter is headed our way, even though many of us are beginning to question deeply the assumptions underpinning capitalism and seek genuine alternatives.

      1. DownSouth

        I tend to think along these lines too, in that the material wealth of a society is highly dependent upon its social/moral capital. For social/moral capital to be high, prosocial behavior must be rewarded and antisocial behavior punished.

        But as you inquire: Why does this happen? Why do societies go through generative phases when social/moral capital is on the rise and degenerative phases when it is on the wane?

        I like to beat up on the harbingers of antisocial behavior as much as anyone. Certainly Nash’s early theories were antisocial, as were Friedman’s, which were only an intermediate step between the less sociopathic broodings of Frank Knight and the totally antisocial theories of Richard Posner and Gary Becker. But when one places Nash, Knight, Friedman, Posner or Becker in their sights, is one shooting the messenger? Are these phases of ebbing and flowing social/moral capital inevitable? When does acknowleging them cross the line into promoting them?

        Which brings us full circle back to the perrenial argument about God, man and nature. Theology, philosophy and science have thus far proven impotent in the face of the question as to what causes these regenerative and degenerative cycles, much less how they might be controlled or whether they even ought to be controlled.

        1. Dave of Maryland

          Why does this happen?

          Laziness & complacency, for one.

          Second, collective distraction. When I am rich enough that I no longer have to worry about food, clothing, shelter, when I delegate those worries to others, corruption ensues.

          The example is the nouveau-rich Hollywood star who quickly develops an entourage, including a business manager who invariably steals every last cent.

          So this part of the argument boils down to, Why aren’t business managers honest? The corollary is How did Jamie Dimon become the outstanding individual he clearly is?

          The answer, of course, is that there are things that cannot be delegated. Disaster ensues when we do.

          1. Toby

            But where do laziness and complacency come from? I suspect yours is a ‘human nature’ answer, and here I firmly believe the system generates these behaviours — that is, they are not hard-wired in our genes — largely because we have culturally failed to probe wisely enough what it means to be alive and ‘valuable’ in society. There is still a lot of work to be done in this department. Buckminster Fuller:

            “It is logical that we think of unemployment as a negative, rather than realizing that it is signaling that society now has the ability to free people from the necessity of demonstrating their right to live by gaining and holding employment. [My emphasis.]

            Sadly it is impossible in a blog comment box to squeeze in all that needs to be said to communicate what I’m thinking here. DownSouth raises the obvious question of how to assess and value each other as contributing members of society absent traditional measures such as money and labour. I don’t have an easy answer — no doubt there isn’t one — but feel intuitively sure new ways of valuing each other are possible in a radically different system. What we tend to be blind to is how enmeshed we are in the story of the times, which currently revolves around the struggle for existence, survival only of the fittest, merciless competition, The Invisible Hand, and how these core ideas feed into EMH, ‘freedom’ and capitalism.

            From what I have read and heard none of these core assumptions is accurate. Each is unraveling, offering fuller, richer explanations, tending towards cooperation, morality, life as a gift, abundance, etc. From these operating assumptions a very different society indeed can emerge, whose shape from here can only be a blur. But I think it’s safe to say we should not be too certain about anything other than the oncoming deep changes.

          2. Anonymous Jones

            I think laziness and complacency are descriptors that might just really be negative spins on people with higher expectations (generations accustomed to abundance) and also people in a society that has evolved to a point where free riding has higher expected returns on a game theory basis.

        2. Toby

          “Which brings us full circle back to the perrenial argument about God, man and nature. Theology, philosophy and science have thus far proven impotent in the face of the question as to what causes these regenerative and degenerative cycles, much less how they might be controlled or whether they even ought to be controlled.”

          I think “impotent” is too strong, as is “controlled”. As I hinted in my answer to Dave, we shouldn’t be concerned overly with final explanations which allow total control of ourselves and society. That would be the search for Utopia, and Utopia, being perfect by definition, would be stagnant, lifeless, etc.

          I really think a better money-system is where many improvements are to be found. But, in order to create it, we first have to want to. This desire can only arise out of a cultural understanding of how the debt-money system corrupts society and points it in too dangerous a direction. Discussions of the type we are having here, which are taking place elsewhere too, are part of that. Maybe we’ll fail and drive ourselves of the cliff in mad pursuit of perpetual growth, who knows, but I haven’t given up on us yet. There is still time. History rhymes, it doesn’t repeat. And not only Newton stood on the shoulders of giants, we all do.

          1. DownSouth

            Foppe above plugged Adam Curtis’ film The Trap.

            In the Adam Curtis trilogy, there exists another film besides The Trap and The Century of the Self that is certainly worth viewing. It’s called The Power of Nightmares and can be viewed here:

            As the film points out, somewhere and somehow over the past few decades the modernist vision of heaven on Earth got lost and was replaced by one of hell on Earth.

            I admire your spirit. You are not consumed with pessimistic foreboding, which becomes self-fulfilling.

            In Cosmopolis Stephen Toulmin is also optimistic. Even though he believes we may have to give up on the certain and doubt-free world that Modernism II promised, we can always fall back on Modernism I where theology, philosophy and science have much more modest ambitions. This is the world of Erasmus, Rabelais, Shakespeare and Montaigne, as opposed to the certain and doubt-free world of the scientific determinists (Descartes and Newton), the nihilistic world (Nietzsche), or the certain and doubt-free world of the religious determinists (Martin Luther and his opponents, the counter-reformationists).

          2. Toby

            Through science it seems we are learning to re-embrace uncertainty. Uncertainty is great, essential to life, flexibility, adaptation. Didn’t Plato say 5% of reality is chaos and the rest order? Too exact a measurement for my tastes, but there’s some wisdom in the assertion I feel.

            As for going backwards, I don’t buy it totally. I see it this way: if we make it past this incredibly difficult set of challenges there’ll be enough humans around to carry on with the project, enough, therefore, not to forget everything. The giants’ shoulders will still be there to climb up on and improve our view. On the other hand, if we don’t make it, then that won’t be a backwards step, it will be extinction. So if we don’t go extinct along with millions of other species, we’ll do something quite different I’m sure.

            Our current problems are systemic (incl. exquisite propaganda) + neural lag, they’re not genetic in the sense of hard-wired/eternally repeating. Homo sapiens sapiens was egalitarian for the vast majority of its time on earth. Perhaps more importantly, the circle of reciprocity has expanded greatly from primitive times — I cry when I see photos of Iraqi children killed by war, and was haunted for days having seen a rabbit run over (last year). I know I’m not alone in this. Humans are generally very empathic. Only primary sociopaths are not (by birth), that’s about 1-2% of us apparently.

            Chin up DownSouth, humanity is going through the birth-throes of a very new beginning. The risk of still-birth is high, but by no means a foregone conclusion!

        3. Siggy

          “…ought to be controlled?” is a very insightful query.

          My sense is that the collpase of complex societies must periodically be allowed to occur. Better still if instead of a catastrophic collapse we have a small ones, something akin to a structure reversion phenomenom.

          I would prefer a politcal system based on the format of a republic. A democracy would be preferred by many but the political rule of the many is a expression of mediocrity. My observation is that in societal and business organizations alike, size is the enemy of excellence.

          The question, “Is a Taintor-Style Collapse in Our Future?” strikes me as being late in its consideration. I believe that it can be fairly asserted that we have arrived at point four of Taintor’s argument. I believe that we have arrived at the junture where the uncertainty is precisely how the collapse of our society will proceed.

          If we are fortunate, there will be the recognition of the flawed and failed philosophies that have served as the justification for malinvestment and employment. If one recognizes that human societies are agglomerations whose purpose is to order the satisfaction of the need for clothing, housing and food; then one sees how critical the structure of the selected politcal economy happens to be.

          In that regard we could begin by recognizing that ‘free markets’ are an oxymoron and that what is really desired is fair markets. The current distress is very much a product of criminology run rampant. The failure to regulate and to prosecute is the first step in the decompositon of our society.

          Going forward I believe that we would be well advised to seek a path of decomposition whose objective is generally stated as being the institution of fair markets. The next question to be resolved is given the size of our society, how do we create a class mobility system that renders higher rewards to social performance over self indulgence.

      2. sgt_doom

        I greatly appreciate this post on Prof. Tainter, and while I would heartily recommend reading all the books of this truly Renaissance anthropoligist (who tends to cover all angles, or at least a wide variety of venues), just reading his absolutely brilliant 1996 paper, Complexity, Problem Solving, and Sustainable Societies, is truly enlightening.

        Only 10 to 12 pp., and well worth the minimal time investment.

      3. Externality

        I agree, but why does this happen?

        People tend to prioritize effects that are tangible and immediate over those that are abstract and time-delayed. Many societies prefer to keep their wealth in precious metals (that earn no interest but can be easily counted and watched over) over interest-bearing web-based accounts that are nothing more than electrons in a computer backed by a promise from a distant government.

        As hierarchies grow, the leaders view the average citizen as an inconvenient abstraction, getting in they way of the leaders’ goals and aspirations. Consider the choice of a senator who is told the following:

        1. 90% of their constituents oppose the bill, believing accurately that it will help wealthy special interests and their expense. They promise to oppose the senator’s reelection in four years. The staff is busy preparing a form letter to their complaints.

        2. The bill is supported by major donors, influential lobbyists, the corporate media, a congressman who is their good friend and golfing buddy, and co-sponsored by a senator who sits on the admissions committee of the private school their daughter wants to go to. The senator called to warn of “possible unexpected complications” with the daughter’s admission.

        The senator can either face the delayed wrath of people they never meet, or incur the immediate anger of influential people who will end their career in DC and socially ostracize them and their family.

        As we saw with TARP, healthcare, and bank reform legislation, the average congressman or senator will please the people they interact with daily in DC at the expense of constituents thousands of miles away whose district they seldom return to.

        More from HuffPost:

        That’s why this recent piece from the notoriously servile Matt Bai in the New York Times is such a groundbreaker. Never have I seen such a monumentally blatant piece of Versailles triumphalism. In that sense, it is truly The Versailles Manifesto. Here are the key excerpts to show you what I mean:

        * “In theory, all the people who populate the federal government, whether as senators or midlevel bureaucrats, are on loan from other places, often doing the nation’s business at the cost of more lucrative or convenient opportunities back home.
        * “Plenty of people don’t like [Rahm] Emanuel, and plenty more don’t like his politics. But whatever one thinks of the man, it’s indisputable that he has spent most of his adult life doing the people’s work.”
        * “Had the elections board counted that against him, whether or not he had set foot back in Chicago for months at time, it would have lent credence to the destructive idea that there is Washington and there is the rest of us.”

        In the first example, Bai asks us to ignore the revolving door between government and business, whereby many politicians invest time in Congress to then cash in on that time as lobbyists. Nothing to see there, he says — we are asked to believe that instead, most D.C. pols are making a noble sacrifice to serve the public “at the cost of more lucrative or convenient opportunities back home.”

        Then, we are asked to ignore Rahm Emanuel’s long career as a Big Money political fundraiser, an investment banker and then finally the chief go-between for the White House and K Street. No, no — don’t look at that. That’s too… honest. Instead, we should see Emanuel, the embodiment of everything Americans rightly hate about their politics, as a Mr. Smith who “has spent most of his adult life doing the people’s work.”

        1. Toby

          Hierarchies grow out of false understandings about scarcity and competition, which is to say the transition from hunter-gatherer to farmer slowly set up a system which had too much scarcity and competition baked into it. Over the millennia this has become the set of untested assumptions that underpin the mechanisms you allude to. The hierarchies you describe are not inevitable, indeed they are the exception. Homo sapiens sapiens was egalitarian for hundreds of thousands of years, but, via experimentation with domesticating seeds and livestock and other technologies such as written language and so on, has found itself trapped in an unintended and ever-tightening web of its own making.

          In my opinion (though in truth I’m merely passing on the thinking of others with whom I agree) we have reached the maximum extent of what we can do with hierarchical society and are, via the Internet and much else besides, fumblingly feeling our way towards a new egalitarianism, a wider distribution of power and an aversion to hoarding we knew very well for huge tracts of time. A new money-system will be an essential part of this, should we make it. Failure is the more likely outcome I fear.

    2. David Sheegog

      It is apparent that most if not all commentors have not read Tainter. The slant of the posts went quickly to moral questions – and answers. Tainter is considerably more fact based in his findings and bothers little with morality. Eg, in his discussion of the Roman collapse he focuses on the economics of the empire and collects much of his data from Roman records. It took a long time but the slow Roman collapse happened as a result of Rome appropriating progressively greater share of the produce of their subjects and taking it back to Rome. The primary tribute the Romans required was wheat which the Romans had the power to take in any quantity they wished via the Legions. The Legions had to be fed clothed and paid, recruited and pensioned, but the main limiting factors were primarliy transport related. Their practical approach was to take the tax in wheat from as far inland as easily feasible around the circumference of the Mediterranean – by way of oxcart to a port then by sea to Rome. Extracting tribute was as important a reason for all their road building as moving the Legions around. As the oligarchy in Rome grew, so did the need for more tribute from the empire. As peasants became more pressed to provide more and more goods, primarily wheat for Roman meal, they reached a point of not being able to make a living. Artisans and traders were not exempt either. The poorest farms shed their tenants first and so on til even the best farms could not be maintained under the onslaught of the Roman “tax”. The peasant farmers migrated as their livelihoods beccame unsustainable – they simply packed and moved out of reach of the collectors. Many in southern Europe were happy to migrate north to join with barbarians who were massing armies to attack Rome. The only moral conclusion that one MIGHT make is that the ‘greed’ of Rome led to the diminishment of their returns on maintaining an ever more complex empire. Similar event happened according to Tainter in Meso-america with the collapse of the Maya civilization – ever greater and greater “tax” had to be leavied on the subjects to maintain the expanding religio-economic cultural system of the gods of their universe – the kings, the shamans, royal courtiers, warrior caste etc. And yes, greed for power and wealth were factors there, too, but when the king/priests empire first started to expand they were few, as populations grew so did the complexity of maintaining the system. Tainter’s key dictum is that collapse, whether sudden or gradual, is a result of ‘diminishing marginal returns on investment in complexity’. It is not hard to extrapolate then to now, although there is room for argument that we are heading down the road toward collapse, or not – as well as seeing signs of it everywhere. One of Tainters more interesting chapters catalogues US higher education as an area where there is already greatly diminished returns on investment. I don’t remember his numbers, but his point – the more we invest in higher and higher education marginal return on that investment decreases, is just facts from Bureau of Labor Statistics, Census data, GDP extrapolitions, etc. Tainter is important, but his research has not been well critiqued, or replicated to the best of my knowledge, I believe, because it is economic geography/anthropology that isn’t popular among academics.

    3. Jack Rip

      The section taken out of Tainter is meaningless. One cannot produce a long string of statements about politics, society and the like without any proof, without any evidence and without a wider theoretical underpinning (math?). Complex system is an area of science based on quite complex math; what we have in Tainter’s work is his opinion. As far as this commenter, Tainter’s work is baseless and ignorable.

      1. PP Mazzini

        So absent a mathematical model, we shouldn’t bother with either philosophical or empirical investigation? I suppose that pretty much kills 90% of the humanities and social sciences. That’s ok, we’ll just guess about the best course of action for mankind.

        P.P. Mazzini

  3. Maju

    First, complexity is a most complex matter. This really limits our ability to understand and manipulate the problem.

    Anyhow, I think that Externality made a quite decent assessment, in the sense that rather than intrinsic complexity it is a problem of “elite autism”, so to say (in the popular sense of the term “autism”: inability or limited ability to pay attention to the rest).

    I would maybe have put it in terms of class conflict but really we can to some extent disregard this terminology and talk of elites and common people instead, allowing us to integrate other forms of elites distinct from Capitalist ones, such as the former soviet bureaucracy or the extant bureaucracies of the Capitalist world or the technocracies of the private companies, which have their own vested interests and are nothing but a private bureaucracy after all.

    When Tainter says that “Human societies are problem solving organizations”, he is disregarding a key issue: whose problems does the system attend to? Because it is not the same to solve (or attempt to solve) the problems of the broader society (mostly made up of workers or otherwise commoners) than to solve the problems of a small financial elite, for example (say a small military-industrial complex technocracy or whatever).

    Hence there is a key problem with goals, objectives, priorities. Which problems are the ones that are for the “complex system” prioritary to solve? It is not the same to have full employment as central goal than to have the profits of businesspeople as such main target, it is not the same to focus on environmental balance and preservation than to have industrial and economical development as priority. Different real (not just declared) priorities will produce different results and will require different types of “complex” organization. For instance, if a society makes of rapid development and full employment a central goal, a more or less classical socialist system may be the answer, instead if a system wants development and investors’ profits as its goals, then a capitalist system may be the choice. Other options may lack of clear historical references but that does not mean that they are not practicable.

    In general I’d say that the goals of commoners or workers are in the line of full employment and a dignified, not too harsh, way of life for all or a vast majority, the goals of private elites are clearly profits first of all (with a major risk of social breakup if those profits are taken at the expense of other priorities), the goal of a state is geopolitical relevance (maybe hegemony) and therefore militarization and general economic advance, the goal of humankind as species (biological, general) is survival and hence there is an interest in keeping at least some ecological balance, etc.

    We can well say that, simplifying, we have three classes: capitalists, bureaucrats (including military and “private” technocrats) and workers. All share the generic biological human needs but each has its own distinct priority. The ones in better position are without doubt the bureaucrats/technocrats because they are needed in all scenarios: they are the actual managers, however bureaucracies tend to stagnate in their own vicious circles (corporative and private interests beyond their stated goals, such as salaries, permanence, status, etc.)

    So maybe we should address the problem of complexity not as much as one of “societies” (a vague concept) but as one of bureaucracies, of management structures and their real goals.

    1. GCL

      Maju, I have read Tainter’s book. My sense is that, if the question is whether Tainter’s theory of diminishing returns to complexity is a good “general theory of collapse”, then the various goals one complex society or another has set for itself do not change one’s answer to that question. In Tainter’s terms, each set of goals would put the society on a different path, but all paths bring their own challenges which are solved with “more complexity”, which has diminishing returns, so that eventually all complex societies face the spectre of collapse.

      Tainter also pointed out that collapse is a common phenomenon through history, and that it is not necessarily or always a bad thing. I understood that to mean that our homo sapiens tendency to construct grand social projects (tribes, nations, states, supra-national agglomerations) can and does get ahead of itself, and when it no longer makes economic (read: biological) sense, our practical side gives a reality check to our social side, and unsustainable situations are abandoned on the grounds of not being worth the personal cost invested by each aspiring “builder” of “society”.

      1. Maju

        I imagine that Tainter also considered the pros and cons of decentralization, the pros and cons of integration of economics and ecology into a single science (after all “economics” means in Greek management of the environment, “ecology” in turn means science of the environment, “ekos”).

        I think the latter is a must, that disregarding the environmental costs of our economy is a major flaw of the so-called economic science, as well as disregarding to measure human satisfaction instead of mere monetary units (that’s mere accountancy, not economics). These are not mere minor departments but are central to the crisis we are immersed in: the ecological crisis is so obvious that I won’t bother extending about it but the confidence and solidarity crisis deals primarily with the goals and measures of economics in mere abstract monetary units instead of concrete (albeit arguably subjective) human satisfaction ones (of course a poor ecosystem also affects satisfaction negatively but even damages the productive economy as well, reducing productivity and demanding palliative care). We need economics with clear human objectives, first of all.

        As for centralization/decentralization, I am a bit amiss. I realize the need for greater global and regional coordination, which should be democratic rather than by means of the governments in any case. However I also think that greater decentralization and local democratic empowerment on the economy is necessary for greater efficiency (and freedom). This second proposed trend is one of decreasing complexity to more manageable levels without falling into feudalism, the other is unavoidable but it is already there (albeit in wrong undemocratic and imperialist forms mostly).

        As for collapse it may be not such a bad thing to the historian but for the peoples living through it is a major problem. Additionally, previous states’ collapses (or existences) probably did not have the impact our hyperdeveloped reality has. Rome and the others did not have nukes that can erase most life in a matter of minutes for instance. However, as it’s clear we are going to go through a civilization collapse, I think that the sooner the better (I cannot imagine a single reason to delay it and the much necessary radical transformation that should happen through and after such collapse).

        But in general it is better to keep the house standing… unless it is a real ruin or alternative housing is made available. I’d suggest to work for such “alternative housing” with dilligence, as it’s obvious that this one is a ruin and heading towards collapse no matter what is done.

        Anyhow, I do not think that at our present technological level, humankind is manageable without some sort of global coordination. Disintegration of the global system (this or any other one) can only lead to wars (which can go nuclear or biological easily) and further productivist destruction of the planet’s live layer. So I do warn against letting things for tomorrow because it can well be much worse.

        Problems that are let to rot can only cause bigger problems. Dilettantism never solved anything.

  4. prophet without profit

    On a more simplistic level examine the state of American infrastructure. We have millions of miles of roads and bridges. We have witnessed startling collapses such as the bridge in Minneapolis. More subtle is the visible deterioration of highways and bridges with exposed re-bar. In rural areas roads are not being repaved, but where possible returned to gravel roads. The last NY snowstorm revealed the enormous cost to clear the thousands of NY streets. I believe this one snowstorm will cost the city more than $200m.

    Perhaps when Robert Moses built the bridges and parkways in the NY metropolitan area the construction cost was relatively inexpensive. But now road repairs are hugely expensive already adding a burden to already large state and local deficits.

    This is merely one facet of our complex infrastructure. We need to analyze complexity in conjunction with financial capabilities. We have too much debt and too little income in a steady state. When you factor in the maintenance costs of complex systems: aviation, internet, roads, our fleet of vehicles, computers etc. it is not difficult to see where society could approach the collapse point.

  5. russell1200

    I would normally be thought of the type of person that loves Tainter, but I find him less than compelling at times.

    Tainter gives a reasonable explanation for the mechanism by which societies can collapse: and not all that he comments on are of the Alpha Empire type.

    But he is very weak on process. And if you are in the middle (or near end?) of the process, it is the process that would concern you. In addition, he comes off as one of these very divisive people with all the answers, which tends to restrict his input. Both posters-Foppe and Eternalitys’ comments are indicative of his weakness within the area of process.

    Jack Goldstone, at George Mason, does a much better job of laying out a process. His book on Revolution in Early Modern Europe will give you a very deja vu feeling without him beating you over the head with it. The discussion of credential crises (too many people wanting degrees for positions that previously did not require them) in 17th century England is worth the price of admission alone. Peter Turchin has taken some of this and tried to model it mathematically. But at times, Turchin, having found a really nice hammer, seems to think everything is a nail. Poster-Externally would probably appreciate their approach.

    I am not sure that the Japanese are good example of resilience. Much of their current ills were self induced by a massive property bubble. In their earlier system (19th to 20 century) they pulled off a poster-child expand to the point of collapse empire. Their social cohesion seems to work for them and against them.

  6. Bill Kay


    With reference to your comment regarding Japan, I would like to add the following:

    When the Bubble burst it Japan, the government there had about $10 Trillion Surplus, but now despite about 14 separate stimulus packages (totalling about $12 trillion), Japan has a huge national debt.

    In 1989 (and to this day), Japan had one of the lowest per capita homeownership rates.

    Also, in 1989 Japanese people had virtually no credit card debt. Japan is very much a strictly cash society.

    Despite all of these factors, Japan has been stuck in stagflation for 21 years with no prospect of recovery on the horizon.

    There was a great article about this in NYT in October:

    The 800lb gorilla in the room is the consumer confidence.

    IMHO we are entering a multi generational calamity and everyone in power is playing an ostrich defense…

    It is time to put all of these issues front and center, our children may thanks for that in the future.

    I welcome all comments at:

  7. Bruce

    Is he discussing the collapse of empires, or regime change within states? In either case, I don’t think “complexity” has much to do with it. The Soviet Union didn’t collapse because of complexity, it collapsed because Moscow was so corrupt it couldn’t continue to pay for maintenance of an effective tax collection and police force in the satellites, or perhaps it just perceived that the economic cost to do so wasn’t worth the rents. I don’t know why the Austrian Hungarian empire collapsed, WWI? The Roman Empire collapsed because it had too many borders to defend. Etc. Not having read his books, are these examples of “complexity”? I think most empires end because they are non homogenous and require a massive police cost, or because they get beaten in war.

    1. Maju

      The USSR collapsed for two reasons: one (the classical Troskyist critique): because the bureaucracy wanted to make their privileges greater and inheritable (become a capitalist class) and two (often ill-understood): because it was designed for the Fordist era of disciplinary production and thwarted all attempts to adapt to the Toyotist era of social production, what stagnated the system to practical incapacity.

      The AH empire collapsed in part because it was made up of too many different nations in an era dominated by nationalism (also because it lost the war).

      The Roman empire did not collapse because of borders, which it could effectively defend for many centuries, but because the displacement of the center to the Hellenistic world (Constantinople) caused the Western Empire to become deprived of resources and mostly pointless to continue to exist. Still the elites devised an exit for themselves in the form of feudalism (which is not a Germanic invention, as many believe, but a late Roman one – causing huge revolts in the Atlantic areas known as Bagaudae, revolts largely addressed by means of empowering mercenary bands arrived from Germania, specially the Visigoths).

      Similarly the USA might one day empower Los Zetas (a particularly cruel Mexican drug cartel with US military training) to quell a revolt, who knows? As the elites try to survive as such elites (i.e. without losing their power) in the mess they have themselves created, they become even more ruthless and resort to all kind of violent means. By controlling the economy, they can pay all kind of mercenaries, be them paramilitary, political, mediatic or whatever. Of course, one day one of those mercenaries may simply take their place, but they think is a risk worth taking anyhow.

      1. Dave of Maryland

        The USSR, like Austria-Hungary & the Ottoman Empire, fractured along nationalist lines. Presumably Eritrea & Ethiopia as well. But that’s not what Tainter’s talking about.

        He’s talking about an homogeneous society flying apart. Which would be, let me see, North & South Korea, the former North & South Vietnam, the former East & West Germany, and Virginia & West Virginia.

        Lurking in the background are Scotland, Wales & Northern Ireland, the Basques, Alsace, Langue d’Oc, Quebec, etc. Not to mention Lebanon, Palestine, Sunnis & Shia in Iraq, or the Kurds, split into three different countries. And East Timor, Sri Lanka, etc.

        While I’d like to believe that sheer economics & social complexity can produce stress that leads to new national units, when I look for examples all I can find is simple nationalism, completely independent of economics. Will the US fly apart? Leading Russian scholars have long thought so, but so long as “America” is our fundamental identity, it won’t happen. In the USSR, no one thought of themselves as “Soviets”. They were Russians, Latvians, Ukrainians, Belorussians, etc. So of course as soon as Moscow dropped the whip they all went their own ways. It would have been amazing if they had not. This is clearly not the case in America. If Washington, DC, did not exist, we would reinvent it. Compulsively.

        The People must define a new identity before it can be established as a independent political unit. There are a handful of places in the US where local identity is nearly as powerful as the overall national identity: California, New York, maybe New Orleans.

        Complexity doesn’t seem to have much to do with it, as I can’t find a single example where economics were the central issue in political collapse & reorganization. National identity & raw political & military power are what’s at stake. There’s nothing complex about your national identity. Economics is a sop at best.

        I am coming to suspect these theories are proposed merely to boost the ego of the person proposing it. Is Mr. Tainter known for anything better?

        It seems to me that economic collapse is like a financial neutron bomb. All the money is destroyed, leaving a lot of destitute people, and their governments, unable to do much of anything.

        1. Maju

          But when we consider the collapse of the USSR, we have to understand that, excepting the Baltic republics (and maybe Georgia) nobody really wanted to break apart from the Union and it was Russia which, after Yeltsin’s counter-coup(??), did, destroying the Union from its very core. So it is clearly not mostly a matter of ethnic/national disintegration but something happened in the very core of the Union, in Moscow and Russia primarily.

          And we have to understand that, first of all, this soviet implosion was a problem of inefficiency. The USSR had growing returns in its first period, becoming a global reference for the Stalinist model: a model that promised and in some cases at least delivered accelerated development in rather egalitarian parameters, in spite of the downs of authoritarianism. However in its late period, the USSR failed to keep that promising path and was unable to reform itself in order to keep delivering. This put the system in a point of no return. Gorbachev’s daring reforms attempted to solve the problem but were probably a case of “too little, too late” and the bureaucrats saw a better exit (for themselves, probably not for the Union nor the people) in becoming Capitalist and privatizing the social economy into their own greedy and mafioso hands. Dissolving the USSR was the price they chose to pay (some like Putin still lament such decision anyhow).

          1. kievite

            And we have to understand that, first of all, this soviet implosion was a problem of inefficiency. The USSR had growing returns in its first period, becoming a global reference for the Stalinist model: a model that promised and in some cases at least delivered accelerated development in rather egalitarian parameters, in spite of the downs of authoritarianism. However in its late period, the USSR failed to keep that promising path and was unable to reform itself in order to keep delivering. This put the system in a point of no return. Gorbachev’s daring reforms attempted to solve the problem but were probably a case of “too little, too late” and the bureaucrats saw a better exit (for themselves, probably not for the Union nor the people) in becoming Capitalist and privatizing the social economy into their own greedy and mafioso hands. Dissolving the USSR was the price they chose to pay (some like Putin still lament such decision anyhow).

            While loss of economic efficiently, stagnation of all spheres of life and declining standards of living were probably decisive factors, it was more complex then that and the collapse of Communist ideology was an important factor.

            - Ideology was the key cementing block of this set of nation and when it failed to deliver the promises conflicts became more acute (there was even miliraty conflict between Aserbayjan and Armenia and it happened before the dissolution of the USSR.

            - Due to this collase there was widespread revival of nationalism fueled by tremendous flows of Western money and propaganda. Many intellectuals were simply bought. Soros played an important role in this.

            - There was also a widespread feeling that CPSU is no longer a legitimate group to rule the country and this feeling probably was shared by repressive forces such as KGB, because otherwise dissenters would be simply crashed like it happened in China.

            - This was a unique period when neoliberalism propaganda was really effective as it was too early to see the results of this model on GB and USA. That means that it became a real alternative to Marxist ideology. Funny, but one of the key initiators of the “shock therapy” and one of the most adamant leaders of privatization — Egor Gaidar — was a son of the famous communist and before joining Yeltsin he was the editor-in-chief of the magazine “Young Communist” (the second most important CPSU ideological publication).

          2. Maju

            @Kievite: You probably know better (judging from your nickname you are Ukranian, right?). Still:

            “There was also a widespread feeling that CPSU is no longer a legitimate group to rule the country and this feeling probably was shared by repressive forces such as KGB, because otherwise dissenters would be simply crashed like it happened in China”.

            I have the strong impression that lack of economic efficiency in the late USSR was a reason for that detachment between the know-all KGB and the CPSU. I recall from that time reading that the KGB knew that the system was highly ineffective and that some sort of reform was needed.

            However what kind of reform (i.e. one towards socialist democracy or one towards capitalist autocracy, as was the case in the end) was surely an open option. I remember that there were late attempts to revitalize the soviets (in theory representative bodies) that were thwarted by their dissolution by decree. Gorbachev’s reforms, no matter how half-hearted, mislead or failed, were in that direction as well.

            In the end it was a transformation of bureaucracies (or rather sectors of them) into a new capitalist class, of marked mafioso tendencies. But was this the only possible option? Would that have happened if the reforms had begun 20 years earlier?

            Anyhow, in general we do not seem to disagree too much, right?

        2. GCL

          “Economics is a sop at best”

          I disagree. Even though we live in an era of plenty thanks to fossil fuels, which has allowed luxuries like “national identity” and “nationalism” to be created, all the spectacular 20th century collapses still had their origins in economics. Taking just the one case that is in most people’s living memory, the disintegration of the Soviet empire is a classic Tainter- style collapse caused by diminishing returns to complexity. Pieces of that empire, and within them their citizens themselves, found it less burdensome to break away than to carry on, and eventually they broke away in a cascade. Why the Soviets and not the West? Because the Soviet investments in complexity were far less efficient, eventually reaching negative returns with collapse held at bay only by widespread oppression. The dam broke when the first rebels broke away without retaliation by the central state, and when that happened, the simplification went everywhere where negative returns existed. That simplification manifested itself differently for different subjects of the Soviet empire – independence or autonomy at the political unit levels, “privatization” or looting at the individual citizen level.

  8. Frederick Guy

    Yves asks, “So how do organizations and ideologies that undermine some of the key elements of a complex society (effective regulation, for instance) in a period of abundance fit into this picture?”

    I don’t have an opinion on whether the increasing complexity of the modern economy will lead to a Tainter-type collapse. However, the unregulated market *is* sold as a minimal-overhead way of managing a complex system: specifically, as the information processing system that makes the best use of local knowledge for the benefit of the entire society, precisely because it lacks central regulation. See Hayek’s paper The Use of Knowledge in Society (1945). The willingness to believe this story comes in part from the desire for a way to cut the Gordian knot of institutions built to manage the increasingly complex modern economy. The Reagan/Thatcher neo-liberal counter-revolution of the 1980s owes at least as much to such Austrian reasoning as it does to neo-classical notions of allocatively efficient markets.

  9. billwilson

    I’m more with Taleb on this one.

    We saw a financial system that was very interconnected and lived on the idea that risk was being diversified (or eliminated) through their magical handiwork. But in essence they had created a system that was very vulnerable to a “black swan”. It took one event to almost bring down the entire system, as everyone was so dependent on everyone else.

    I sometimes think it is all about “cushions” – or a margin of safety. We take everything to the limit, pushing to get the last ounce of performance. We have forgotten that there are reasons to have cushions against unexpected events (like we stored food in the long ago past against the prospect of a possible famine). There is a reason we have speed limits. Just because our cars can go 180, doesn’t mean they should (Germany as the exception?).

  10. Jim Haygood

    ‘Society will have … to deal with such things as … border conflicts and unrest. Major, unexpected stress surges … such things as … foreign incursions [also] take place. To meet these major stresses, the society must have some kind of net reserve.’

    Here Tainter is describing normal countries, whose primary military concern is defending their borders. This priority characterizes most nations except for the US, which since 1945 has defined ‘defense’ as maintaining a vast empire of overseas bases. This has led to a ‘defense’ budget which exceeds those of the rest of the world combined.

    Malinvesting an annual 4% of GDP in a deadweight-loss military empire systematically strips the US economy of investment capital. This relentless decline has been covered up with reckless borrowing, but now debt service itself is looming as a problem, and future growth is fatally compromised.

    Dismantling the unproductive empire, currently bogged down in a lost war in Vietghanistan, isn’t even on the radar screen of the ossified Depublicrat duopoly which has ruled unchallenged for the past 150 years. A decisive majority of the population still plays in the partisan sandbox built specially for them, believing they can punish the R’s by voting D, or vice versa.

    So sad, so silly! It’s all one big War Party, as Peace Laureate O’Bomber has proved in his seamless transition from Airman Bush who preceded him.

    Accordingly, it’s fairly easy to project that the US empire will implode via self-imposed financial crisis caused by chronic malinvestment, not by foreign attack. The termites chomping away at the national foundations are domestic in origin. You can see them preening on Teevee today in Washington DeeCee.

    1. Gesell Got It Right

      So you think you could sustain your consumption and financial neocolonialism by issuing USD as world currency if you didn’t have such a military?

      Get rid of the military, but you will be far away from solving the economic problems anyway.

      1. Maju

        You won’t solve the problems via militarism and imperialism for sure. It may indeed sustain the virtual value of the US dollar somewhat but it is a strategy of diminishing returns (i.e. some military might does support the USD but too much might is mostly a drain – and it is anyhow often cheaper to do as China: just deal with whoever is in power instead of spending more than it returns in placing your weak vassal in the throne).

        You can instead solve the economic problems for the majority with a socialist strategy (among others maybe). Specially a large and powerful country such as the USA can do that without relying so much on imperialism and militarization drain. However this is not in the interest of the economic elites, who are the actual oligarchy in power and would lose a lot (or all) if such strategy is ever implemented.

  11. Jim Haygood

    p.s. The DC Leviathan is a textbook example of declining marginal returns, now transitioning into negative returns, from excessive centralization.

    Small is beautiful. DC is a disaster, regardless of who’s in charge. Abolish the Fed.

  12. Misthos

    No mention here of biophysical economics? I think that’s central to Tainter’s view. Energy Returned on Energy Invested. Energy is the source of economic surplus and thus, societal and economic complexity. The recent Hans Rosling video (irresponsibly) completely omits the role of energy – specifically fossil fuels. Energy is how we grow economically, and how we pay off loans. When we spend more energy to get the same or less amount of energy in return, society and the economy de-complexify.

    It’s that simple.

    1. agog

      The collective intellect on display in this thread is mightily impressive and largely, it seems, missing the point which is as Misthos states EROEI, ie. energy returned on energy invested. Echoing Tainter, Chris Martenson of Crash Course fame (well, possibly not and that is probably symptomatic of why there is so much miscomprehension about of the predicament we face) has written “The most important description of any complex system is that it owes its order and complexity to the constant flow of energy through it.”

      With the advent of peak (conventional) oil in 2006 admitted now by none other than the IEA in its 2010 World Energy Outlook report released last November (and duly ignored by our benighted MSM) this constant flow of energy has begun to decline. Reductionist perhaps, but the unravelling of our complex system we have been experiencing over the past few years begins to make some sense when viewed through this energy lens.

      Surely a matter of Occam’s razor.

  13. Richard Kline

    I have read and own Tainter’s text, and ditto for some of Jack Goldstone’s work, read papers by Turchin and should take a whack at some of his texts (but I’m doing other things with my time just now). Tainter’s thesis is too detailed for any brief summary, but the skinny is I’m not sold on it. I might add that the decline of societies is something I’m studied and modeled extensively.

    First, some points where I don’t quite match up with Tainter. Then a bit of alternative perspective. I think that the concept that societies ‘fall’ because they are overcome by a stress or stresses cannot readily be supported historically. A violent, external conquest by massively superior force is an exception, but even then one often finds that the pre-existing society survives beneath the veneer of a non-indigenous, rent-extractive elite. Western Europe had a third of its population die in a few years in the Black Plague: virtually nothing changed in the near terms, and the long-term changes were largely within the parameters of pre-existant traditions. China had in excess of 20 million killed and massive economic dislocation in the series of insurrections around the Taiping movement. The chief result was that the _foreign occupation_ was mortally wounded while Chinese society only reinforced itself. I can think of many other examples, but I’ll reiterate the point: societies, that is coherent cultural traditions in an enduring population, generally are not smashed. So Tainter’s arguments leading to ‘ . . . and then the stress was too much’ form a series with no sum, in my view.

    Second, the idea that decreasing marginal returns destabilize societies strikes me as questionable. My reading of the historical record is that marginal declines are more likely to lead to a plateau or stagnation; not the same thing as a ‘societal decline’ and not at all a ‘fall.’ We aren’t typically talking about functions like predator-prey cycles because stagnation simply means that folks live a little smaller—but they still live, and with much the same traditions and institutions. Again, there is a germane exception to this, that of resource _collapses_ of the kind Jared Diamond (and others before him) discuss. So, not a marginal decline but a genuine collapse, and in the classic instance a precipitous one. This isn’t really what Tainter is talking about, and any of us would recognize something like, say, a massive and enduring drought as a societal game-changer which needs no other explanation.

    Third, Tainter’s contention that a ‘reserve productive capacity’ is necessary to meet stresses which, if exceeded, leads to failure is a misconception, presenting what is an issue of social psychology as one of engineering. Distribution of resources is a _social_ phenomenon, not really oneengineering or management. In a crisis, societies can often get by with what they have, or even a good deal less, if distribution provides most with a minimum: distribution, and the social coherence and political traditions and mechanisms necessary, determines outcome. Slack capacity is just a crutch for bad distribution or bad politics. Societal ‘failure’ in such contexts where slack is used up isn’t really an issue of resources then but of societal inflexibility (read inequality and/or parochialism). Pseudo-engineering explanations for societal processes have always struck me as attempts to take the politics out of the processes involved to achieve ‘a more scientific’ approach, but simply mis-frame the real issues in view, much as I say here.

    Fourth, the contention that “Human societies are problem solving organizations” is, to me, a gross misreading also. It is a human conceit that our societies are ‘designed,’ that they have ‘goals,’ and that our ‘plans’ really matter. While there are certainly designs, goals, and plans in societal processes, and I don’t mean to describe them as ‘meaningless,’ they are minor components in my view. Societies as I see them are faced with a material context and a problem set [my term] of existing institutional capacities and political or sub-political traditions. Most of these are driven by situations rather than designed. Decisions on ‘how to make things work’ often are effected locally, and at the larger scale self-organize rather then are ‘planned.’ Elites co-opt (or form) useful distribution niches and seize positions of authority (more than they are given authority), and from there “that’s how things are done.” That’s a very simplistic summary In know, but a good one would take 100 pages. Societies do not _exist_ to solve ‘problems,’ they are the default stabilization of available, localized solutions. Sometimes then unrealized potentials—irrigation, commodity import, more tolerable justice system, [your choice here]—are fairly evident; sometimes fairly evident improvements are actualized. Sometimes not. But it is self-inflated hubris to think that societies ‘solve things’ as opposed to mangage a host of conflicting, Rube Goldberg workarounds. And that’s without factoring in the cussedness of human nature to take the money and run regardless of what society ‘expects.’

    Tainter’s best point to me of what is presented here is that where decreasing marginal returns happen, and they do happen, have-nots definitely lose some or all of their stake in societal maintenece or even coherence. This is well-understood from the anthropological level, and I think most of us get the idea at the emotional level too. This points toward the loss of _social coherence_ as the driver to declines, not an inadequate resource capacity. Tainter had a thesis and he stuck to it commendably but with the unfortunate aspect that he spent little time with the _behavior of society_. Which to me is where the action is.

    I would say that societies decline for loss of social coherence, principally driven by four, mutually influential processes: cyclical arcs, institutional obselescence, cumulative power concentration, and irreconcilable parochial pursuits. The latter three are inherently driven to maxima at zeniths in the first one. There is no certainty that one will get a ‘collapse’ as a result, but a ‘decline’ is structurally predictable, with the signature of behavior typical if not invariant as unique, well, _stresses_ do come up and perturb the general pattern.

    There are inherent cyclical oscillations with nested harmonic periods in any complex society. Having studied the phenomenon, I’ll say that that is not an hypothesis but a demonstrable fact, but the demonstration far exceeds time here so I’ll have to leave that as an assertion. Shot-term cycles; long-term cycles: what cycles? Well, relevant to Tainter’s analysis, I would assert that what could be called social coherence and resultant energy of action vary coincidently so that one will get peaks and troughs of each. The period is quasiperiodic (roughly regular in plain English) and sharp peaks and troughs rather than smooth ones on the whole, I suspect due to cumulative lags in synchrony. If cycles are nested but harmonic, that means that peaks, transitions, and troughs can compound (small, middle, and large effects all occuring together). Thus one can have, say, REALLY active points and real sloughs of despond for societal groups as a whole _regardless_ of their traditions, organization, and be it said their plans. Having looked at most historical examples of large-scale societal declines and collapses, it is my conclusion that they correspond to massively compounded cyclical transtions from periods ending. There are counter-examples; the number of instances is not so great that one could say the sample of instances is satisfactory. As a general assertion, I think this one is safe. Societies ‘collapse’ because their page of time turns on them. (Different societies have each their own book though the pages and chapters are always the same size, but that’s another bundle of arguments.) Peaks tend to be late in cycle arc as I said above, so one gets the real effect of a societal acme with abrubt more than gradual fall off. That peak can get spent in stasis/civil discord btw is the society has weak institutions or high parochialism: the level of coherence can’t contain the enhanced activity so the social pieces fly off in different directions. Their are many internal dynamics too which would be useful for this discussion but are just too involved, sorry folks.

    Institutional obselescene, or said differently over-determined normative solutions, are a separate issue, and one that comes closest to what I rather think Tainter wanted to get at with his marginalist model. If at any given point a society faces a problem set in a specific context as mentioned above, a functional response to that does tend to develope, whether mostly intentionally or completely self-organized. —And that’s the way things are done afterward because ‘this works,’ and moreover because groups and individuals attach themselves to partsof how that ‘system’ works and strive to maintin, or better to maximize, _those present positions_. But the situation, it changes. It changes for social reasons; it changes for resource regions; it changes changes for cumulative reasons; it changes by chance. Hell, it changes for reasons of marginal declines, but as you see these are only one amongst many drivers. But the system, it DOESN’T change, or changes very little, because all of those grasping maximizers don’t want a damned thing to change because they’ve got this thing _wired_, baby, or will by next Wednesday. The ‘solutions,’ ‘organizations,’ and ‘institutions,’ which a societal group come up with, large and small, tend to fall out of synch with the changing circumstances of society; some evolve, but many drag. This is an inherent problem but the result is that ‘the system’ will end up fighting ‘the reality’ sooner or later, and reality tends to drive those less embedded in the system further from coherence. What we often have at an acme is the system of a society and those closely engaged with it pushing maximally hard at The Way while those pushed to the margins are pulling away or to more comfortable alignments where they can; then the system slows down as the arc passes, and *snap*. More or less.

    Cumulative power concentration is the most invidious of developments, but in some senses the dynamic isn’t in the first instance a moral or even political one because it, too, is likely inherent. As a _vector_ not as an outcome: we can choose to modulate it’s course, and such a decision is a moral one. I’ve some time ago discussed issues of nodal concentration in systems, but we can take a simple phrase every one knows to illustrate this dynamic: the rich get richer. Or better, the powerful exponentiate. Great fortunes can get lost, stolen, or broken, but then act like local gravity wells with value and influence sliding down into them. A system maximizes such nodes and, given sufficient iterations, freezes around them barring external perturbations. So the rich will get richer, and the system, ANY social system, will tilt in toward their inclination if the context is more or less stable. Unless those nodes are deliberately capped, or otherwise buffered. So long-running societies will tend to increasingly aggregate power in fewer and fewer hands. Socially, this is dysfunctional, and we see the result many times: other ranks defect, or at least non-cooperate because they’re not getting enough out of ‘the system.’ The vector of nodal concentration inherently erodes social coherence independent of the cyclical dynamics to amplify or damp social coherence. A severely concentrated society can which has lost coherence can blow apart at peaks—think French Revolution in its way—or fall apart at troughs—think the Fall of the Roman Empire, for one—but again this isn’t an issue of resource resere per se but of destructive distribution, that is of malignant concentration. It is a moral necessity to withstand concentration of wealth and power to maintain a society; not to maintain a _just_ society, though that too is true, but to maintain ANY society over time. If the powerful win, things fall apart. Period. This is the principal dynamic in why most complex societies fail, in my analysis, metasticized concentration of power tears apart social coherence. Seriously, the rich aren’t worth it to the rest of us. Humanity hasn’t quite learned this particular lesson yet . . . .

    Irreconcilable parochial pursuits are much the most evident in the historical record. They make visible news, and news gets written down. To put it simply, if Karl wants to go left and Fritz wants to go right, they don’t even need to reach a fork in the road for the society they both carry on their shoulders to fall apart. ‘S gonna happen. The point about separate trajectories of action is not their content though. This is the great misnomer. The content, practical or moral, of particular sub-group objectives is much talked about but functionally irrelevant compared to the loss of compatability/coherence. And the real point I mention parochial irreconcilables is that their vectors tend to get maximally pushed at peaks simply because everyone is pushing their own wheel around as hard as they can. Part of what troughs mean is that the wind comes out of the sails of disputes. They may be more bitter than ever, but commonalities get a chance to scab over &etc. If a society was stabilized around a given group of people to begin with (barring conquest of unreconciled groups), there is likely to be sufficient residual commonality or unseverable organization to withstand parochial disputes in and of themselves. Squabbles make the news, but they generally don’t either fall _or_ decline societies by themselves. They are a contributing factor, but the least one if the one most discussed as I read it.

    If you’ve made it through the preceding, it will be clear to your friend that I don’t see any single-effect explanation of societal decline as even possible, let alone accurate. That includes Tainter’s marginal suffocation interpretation as a sole explanation. Societies are multi-vector phenomenon, and any modeling of their behavior has to place multiple vectors in the same frame of reference and attempt go gauge how they feed into and off of each other. You have my synopsis here, for what it’s worth.

    1. Dave of Maryland

      I liked this.

      Which is to say, in brief, that sometimes we will be rich & happy, and at other times we won’t.

    2. Anonymous Jones

      You make good points, but I hope that no intelligent human believes that collapse of complex societies can be summed up in one simple theory.

      Some, if not most, theories (in all disciplines) can explain most, but not all, phenomena. It doesn’t make such theories without value merely because they are not unified theories.

      Tainter brings a interesting perspective that might have predictive value for future societies, but predictions are just that. They are not, nor is anything, a guarantee of future results.

    3. Toby

      Well, I think Richard’s is an excellent post. I’m only sorry I didn’t have time to read it until know.

      I strongly agree with this:

      It is a moral necessity to withstand concentration of wealth and power to maintain a society; not to maintain a _just_ society, though that too is true, but to maintain ANY society over time. If the powerful win, things fall apart. Period. This is the principal dynamic in why most complex societies fail, in my analysis, metasticized concentration of power tears apart social coherence. Seriously, the rich aren’t worth it to the rest of us. Humanity hasn’t quite learned this particular lesson yet . . . .

      and think particularly that, this time around, it being global and all, the “hasn’t quite learned” part is the hinge and door to something truly new. I believe the requisite cultural wisdom is potentially there, that is, it is possible to try and purposefully set up priorities, to ‘design’ subsystems, which together stand a very good chance of totally inhibiting power/wealth concentrations. But, we have to want to do so in enormous numbers, and know why we want it so. There’s the rub. Will the environment and our access to sufficient amounts of energy hold out for long enough? I have no idea. I just hope so.

      So, the sort of philosophy/paradigm that interests me as a direction — not a goal — is resource-based economics, which I characterize as demoting money while promoting wealth. We must get money out of the driving seat, and put environmental and societal concerns there in its stead, get the horse back in front of the cart. Core focus at deep (myth) levels on cooperation and abundance, environmental health, etc., is key, essential.

      As ever this post of mine is way too short and cannot do justice to the supporting arguments. Hundreds of pages, thousands even, would be necessary. But at least your post gave me another segue. Cheers!

      Oh, and have you read “The Cancer Stage of Capitalism”? A very good book.

  14. Tom Crowl

    Tainter is on to some fundamentals… however a couple of factors may not have received sufficient attention:

    1. “Complexity”… like freedom… is not such an easy thing to measure. In fact, in scientific circles the search for a reliable definition of complexity has yet to reach fruition.

    2. Nevertheless, civilizations (and hunter-gatherer tribes) can both be reliably defined as complex/chaotic systems (whereby multiple interacting feedback loops make precise prediction of the system’s future quite literally impossible.

    3. Further such systems INEVITABLY collapse (mathematically speaking and given sufficient time). Life, e.g. WE as individuals… are complex/chaotic systems… and sadly… we WILL die.

    4. However, (again theoretically) while collapse is inevitable it can be be almost infinitely postponed given the maintenance of a state called “criticality”! (Criticality is a delicate balance between so much disorder that any even temporary equilibrium is impossible… and the other extreme… so much rigidity that needed correctives are also impossible). E.g. the human immune system: too weak, no protection… too strong auto-immune diseases… but get it just right and you have a robust organism.

    5. (and this is the big one)…

    What Tainter misses is (I believe) the ROOT of the problem of WHY this largely un-definable complexity leads to collapse in human societies.

    The complexity the does civilizations in (generally, but not always… you can’t necessarily avoid environmental factors) isn’t the complexity of its physical technologies or logistics…

    But rather the failure of its SOCIAL TECHNOLOGIES (law, finance, cultural memes, etc.) to address ‘trust mechanisms’…

    You’ve touched on these issues many times here. The burdens on a society’s ‘social energy’ compound where transactions of all kinds must increasingly depend on legalistic enforcement mechanisms and increasingly require vast sectors of society to be engaged in their maintenance and enforcement.

    The reason these “trust mechanisms” become necessary, then dominant… and finally pathologies (the whole FIRE sector as well as law and government are about this) is related to our roots.

    THERE IS A FUNDAMENTAL SCALING ISSUE IN HUMAN SOCIETIES ASSOCIATED WITH NATURAL HUMAN COMMUNITY SIZE (Dunbar’s Number), THE ALTRUISM PROBLEM (there’s an unavoidable discontinuity between biological and intellectual altruism) AND COGNITIVE LIMITS (the “attention economy”).

    In short… our personal networks are smaller than the social organism of which we are a part. This is both unavoidable and problematic.

    Social Networks & The Social Organism: Healing the Breach

    IT’S NOT THE COMPLEXITY ITSELF BUT THE FAILURE OF REMEDIAL MECHANISMS. Civilizations need to build immune systems!

    These problems are at least theoretically fixable. But first the problem must be defined and recognized.

    Frankly the fact I’ve had to spend so many years getting even a hearing on step-one (the Commons-dedicated Account System) slows that process down… both in terms of implementing practical steps to remediation as well as increasing study and recognition of the problem. (A bit arrogant I know… and with realization that I COULD be dead wrong… but I’d be a liar if I denied my belief that I’m not.)

    Gov 2.0 and New Economies – Designing the Social Contract

    Decision Technologies: Currencies and the Social Contract

    1. Demented chimp

      Spot on. It’s hard to get away from our biOlogy and building altruism requires energy and resources (culture education brain washing) lest it break down to the family unit/tribe – the lowest energy state for our biology Somalia afganistan are good examples of low altruism basal states.
      Bhutan is a good example of high altruism state they have invested in an expensive brainwashing system militarised monks and temples/castles.

  15. Eric

    I see a difference between complexity and complication. Complexity is manageable, and our toolbox for dealing with it has become well stocked.

    Complication, on the other hand, is usually intractable. However, there are those who know how to profit by it, so it probably is inevitable.

  16. Sufferin' Succotash

    Tainter’s study would have been a lot more convincing if he had discussed just one society with a non-agrarian economy not primarily driven by human and animal muscle power. The difficulty is that there is no such collapsed society on the historical record. Mere political disintegration–the USSR, Yugoslavia, Austria-Hungary–doesn’t count.

  17. artsworker

    “complexity begins to yield a declining marginal return”

    What causes this declining marginal return? It isn’t due to human intellectual resource shortage. I have acquaintances who spend many hours every week doing sudokus, playing in bridge tournaments or engaging in online games, in other words, seeking out problems to solve and interacting with complex environments for their own sake, because, presumably, everyday life is not problematic or complex enough for them. They don’t experience declining marginal returns because taking part in complex situations and solving problems provide their own return.

    The declining marginal return must be due to society providing fewer material benefits for the same cost to the individual as before (in taxes, working hours put in or whatever) and this can happen in both complex and simple societies if they use up their material resources, or if, for example, the land becomes barren. It is not clear that complexity is the cause of this: you would have to prove that complexity is always more material resource use intensive. (In principle, does the production of a laptop use more resources than a 1950’s mainframe given that the laptop is far more complex?). Such stressed societies may break up, but it doesn’t follow that the smaller units they break up into are less complex, given that as humans we love to create complexity, but only that they are smaller. There is a danger here of identifying increasing size with increasing complexity (clearly not the case with computers!).

    In fact a case can be made for the more intuitive opposite theorem, that it is the simplification of a society that causes it to break up. Machines break down when they become simpler: when the complex interrelationships between mechanical systems that need to work smoothly together are simplified by the failure of a component that takes out one of those systems.

    Similarly, you could argue that when the complex relationships that can exist between individuals and institutions in a community, where both individuals and institutions take on many interlinked roles, gets simplified into being, say, one-dimensional contractual relationships, or, worse, relationships of mutual distrust whereby interactions are only carried on between parties when there is a degree of coercion – through threat of legal sanction, for instance – then this simplification could lead to the break up of the society.

    In such a simplified society the periphery becomes suspicious of the center and vice versa, companies become suspicious of the goodwill of each other, and individuals become suspicious of their neighbors. Their multiple positive mutual relationships collapse into the simple single negative one of mutual antagonism. This simplification would seem to be a greater danger than complexity.

    1. Maju

      It’s because every order is a subset of Chaos. Simple orders have low entropy and are generally long-lasting, complex orders tend to have high entropy, hence the declining returns. That’s why we die and have to reproduce sexually, because our biology is complex, unlike that of bacteria, which (in a sense at least) live eternally (or almost).

      Or to put it in other words: a hypothetical “blank slate” (hyper-simple) society decides to create their first law on a really important matter. This law and its social mechanisms of enforcement (a first step in complexity) yields high returns and that’s why it was conceived and implemented to begin with.

      As it turns out to be a good idea, other laws are gradually created and implemented, after due consideration, and they still produce more benefits than drawbacks. The idea that laws and social control are beneficial becomes mainstream and more and more laws and repression mechanisms are implemented one after the other, however each of these new “advances” is less and less justified and less productive, or even counter-producing.

      Also, the people and corps in charge of implementing them become greedy and ambitious and pursue their own goals, instead of those of the general society. They approve laws to protect laws and laws to protect those in charge of implementing them, they approve laws to increase their power, etc. Society and the ruling class become two different and competing realities, with the former seldom benefiting anymore from the activities of the latter. Eventually, deprived of grassroots support, the whole system collapses one way or another.

      You may think of these useless and even harmful ruling classes as the sick neurones of a drug-addict, who only or mostly search the high (wealth, power) and ignore the overall health of the system, the whole body. Because of the high centralization in the neural system of our bodies, the drug-addict has serious difficulties escaping this vicious circle. However human societies are not or seldom as centralized and hierarchical, what offers some hope of the body retaking control an healing, even if some “neurones” (oligarchs) have to be put down for that healing purpose.

      Revolutions happen because the system is rotten, no other reason.

  18. Chris Cermak

    I was going to comment,but Jim Haygood read my mind,took my thoughts and
    put them into words.

    Outstanding Jim. Completely agree

  19. Jackrabbit

    I haven’t read Tainter but it seems to me that the key problem with increased “complexity” is more severe and pervasive principal-agent problems.

  20. dearieme

    If the Roman Empire is the guide, the first parts of the American Empire to be lost will be remote allies. Australia, perhaps?

    Then late annexations to the Empire proper will be lost – Texas, California, Hawaii?

    I’m unclear as to where you could move your capital to, however. Chicago perhaps?

    1. Maju

      Rome was lost before Egypt, mind you. The Eastern Roman Empire remained intact (and even expanding at least once) for many centuries after the Western Empire was nothing but memory.

      Anyhow, historical comparisons are always limited. The US Empire is not Rome. You can also find parallels with the Spanish Empire (a zillion wars, growing debt), the British Empire (financial hegemony, naval domination) and even the Soviet Union (stagnation and eventual implosion because of the elite’s inability to adapt)… but all have their limitations.

      Yet one thing is clear: all empires must end at some point, often sooner than later. The only partial exception I can find seems to be China – but still…

  21. F. Beard

    There is no limit to sustainable complexity, I would bet, if the system is basically honest. But ours isn’t so we may eventually be back to barter and shiny, scarce metals.

    It’s funny. We have a financial crash whose obvious cause is indebtedness to a counterfeiting cartel yet everyone and everything including the old, the poor, immigrants, China, peak oil, and too much complexity is blamed.

    Scapegoating, I believed it is called.

    Oh, I left out “animal spirits”.

  22. Jay

    The sociologist Mancur Olsen (sp?) has a related but compatible view. In his depiction, society is composed of interest groups (which he calls distributional coalitions). These groups are mostly interested in self-preservation (expansion if possible). Since the groups that compose society are more alert to threats than to opportunities, over time society becomes riddled with ever more complex regulations, each one of which acts to protect some interest. This gradually destroys society’s ability to respond to challenges.

  23. Jason Rines

    The problem is not in complexity but the lack of participation ratio in managerial affairs of the organization. The pyramid structure is still how most of us actually think and organizations reflect such. Here is how the the breakdown of an organization happens:

    The behaviorial research done for DuPont in the 1960′s was that each individual can manage 7 close personal relationships (spouse, kids, best friend) and 150 loose relationships (distant relatives, colleagues).

    Those at the top of the pyramid retract participation of management of the organization. Hubris plays a role as does self-interest from as to “why” the conceptual level thinkers at the top of the pyramid disclude the other two tiers of society. The other two tiers I classify as Issue level or Detail level thinkers. An elite of say three hundred attempting to manage the globe without the involvement of the Issue or Detail level thinkers fails.

    Once the wealth has been concentrated into a new Golden Calf, at this time I have not seen or read of two many societies that understood how to decentralize wealth without some form of war.

    Tom Crowl has the right ideas of building social networking constructs as a tool to assist in the management participation rate. Sadly, the moves from “those that are shaping your world” (as quoted from Bloomberg from Davos)are in the opposite direction.

    Even if such a group of three hundred global elite management meant well, they cannot manage the affairs of several billion people without the other three tiers of society. The EU is breaking apart because it is a monetary union, not a democratic one where all three tiers of society are involved. U.S. citizens question the union in America for the same reason.

    What we would be discussing here in my opinion is what kind of system we want afterward (after the next global war). In-between now and then, I find it satisfactory and suprisingly very interesting to help mitigate the losses in suffering. Each of us can have a direct positive impact at the local level whatever form that is. The economy will have to be built at the local level so may as well get busy.

    I like Toby’s ideas of an ideology of promoting abundance over scarcity but to further break them down into three concepts a society can easily understand such as truth, freedom and justice which are both the cornerstones of a Republic and also the very process of how liberty is restored.

    I agree with Tainter about energy. Any society must maintain control over the means to crank up production. The West is woefully deficient in this regard but won’t stay this way indefinately.

  24. GBPuckett

    On a gut level, I find Tainter’s argument appealing, but it over simplifies in a way that is suspect. To reduce human society to its problem solving function puts blinders on our thinking akin to the questions in a bad public opinion poll. The framing determines the conclusion.

    If human society is reduced to an aggregate of solved problems, each solution exacting an energy cost that saps the whole, then common sense would conclude that the cumulative cost will envitably bring down the whole. On the other hand, if human society is seen as an aggregate of symbiotic relationships, an assembly of partnerships in which the output of the whole is more than the sum of the parts,then the inevitability of collapse is not so obvious.

    I am a determined enemy of unreflective “economies of scale” orthodoxy, but the idea that increased complexity involves increased cost per capita requires examination. The assumption seems obvious, until you make explicit the implied assertion that increased complexity involves a net increased cost per capita. That may or may not be the case. The output may in fact be more than the sum of the inputs. That needs to be determined, not assumed.

    Which brings me to a meme that has been floating around the net, and seemed appropriate to interject into this particular discussion: Geoffrey West’s statistical analysis of the effects of city size (see: ). His conclusion implies (if we correlate increased city size with increased complexity, which I think is fairly obvious) that the net return on inputs of increased complexity is positive, not negative.

    Even if West is correct in that analysis, Tainter may still be correct that increasing complexity inevitably leads to collapse, but not via the mechanism he suggests. West would say that increased complexity generates more than enough benefits to offset the costs of its problem solving. Thus, if complexity does lead to collapse, the mechanism lies somewhere else.

  25. Gordon

    For me complexity is certainly implicated in collapse but I also agree with many of the points made by others.

    I like to start with Mancur Olson’s point (see for instance “The Rise and Decline of Nations”) that over time interest groups congeal – rapidly when there are few members and a strong mutual interest in acting together and more slowly when these conditions are not so strongly present. These interest groups act to levy economic rents that are too small and widely spread for society as a whole to notice or object but significant to the small number in the group that benefits from them.

    Here is a mechanism that drives growing complexity, though not the only one and, while the economic rent levied by each group is small, there are very many such groups so soon society is drowning in costs that are no longer related to productive outputs. Think of the MIC, fat-cat bureaucrats at every level of government, of trade groups and especially of lawyers and doctors. Costs rise but useful output falls. If you could measure an index of justice per lawyer it’s a pretty safe bet it would have plummeted in recent decades.

    Naturally interest groups defend their turf and the more complex life gets the more complex it becomes for outsiders to penetrate their self-serving defences and obscurantism.

    From the perspective of the ordinary citizen the difficulty is then that there is no shared understanding of why it is that things clearly no longer work as well as formerly or how it is that society can no longer maintain the highways etc that a nominally far poorer society built decades ago.

    So people clutch at the straws and strawmen presented to them and false prophets flourish.

    And the difficulty is that cutting the Gordian knot means plotting a political strategy to take on just about every vested interest which is hardly the most appealing strategy for an ambitious candidate.

    1. sgt_doom

      Mancur Olson is probably the only truly deserving economist to be awarded the much undeserved Nobel Prize in Economics.

      (The recent and first woman to be a recipient is a sociologist and was also deserving — but still a sociologist, not an economist, so perhaps they should start only awarding it to sociologists?)

  26. leroguetradeur

    Tainter is literary criticism masquerading as science. Get some quantitative measurements installed, then assess whether or not the relationships exist, plot them, graph them do stats on them, then you’ve learned something. Otherwise its just prejudices masquerading as insight.

  27. Punta Pete

    leroguetradeur said:

    “Tainter is literary criticism masquerading as science. Get some quantitative measurements installed, then assess whether or not the relationships exist, plot them, graph them do stats on them, then you’ve learned something. Otherwise its just prejudices masquerading as insight.”

    Isn’t that what the folks at the Club of Rome did? And aren’t their predictions (of collapse) pretty much on schedule?

  28. lark

    What a lot of comments. This one will probably be lost in the volume (much of which is quite useful).

    I find it enlightening to look at what computer science has learned about complexity and in particular the design features and principles that have been adopted to help complex software systems adapt over time.

    No, these aren’t perfect parallels to human societies but I think they have utility nonetheless.

    There was a programming language revolution in the 1980′s which introduced ‘object oriented programming’. The main idea was to manage the complexity of software systems with new constructs. Note that this complexity is evolutionary: it tends to increase as systems are required to implement more features and functions.

    The idea of object orientation was to introduce the construct of ‘objects’ (for example a checking account) which are accessed through their interfaces. This means the internals of the object are not available. It is the opposite of transparency. You do not know what is behind the interface. These ‘objects’ have types which allow the internal details and implementations to be re-used in the definitions of other objects, so that new objects can be created that use the old implementations, adding new features to existing systems in a disciplined and consistent way.

    The whole idea is to limit the transmission of bad data and bad design as systems grow more complex. There are limits to dependencies as well as enforceable borders. For anyone with this framework in their intellectual repertoire, the push within the financial system to ‘spread risk’ would have seemed suspect from the beginning. It is not unknown in all fields that spreading risk hither and yon will result in system fragility and instability.

    I am quite leery of global supply chains for exactly the same reason.

    I see many comments above which talk about values and class conflict. I think there is merit in these approaches but I think it is important to look at complexity without moral baggage as well, to observe the features and problems of complex systems in a morally neutral way, and to think hard about how to manage the inevitable problems.

  29. Hugh

    It’s not complexity or even size. It’s criminality. I hate to keep harping on this but what we have is a kleptocracy. Analyses that fail to take this into account are either limited or irrelevant in terms of their usefulness. Kleptocrats can use society’s complexity to stifle reform but that is not so much about complexity but how it is used. It is not that our monetary, fiscal, and economy policies are too complex. It is that they are being used to loot.

    As for simplicity, consider when the Taliban was last in power in Afghanistan. About a third of the country was dependent on foreign food aid. I don’t think anyone has ever accused the Taliban of an overly-complex view of the world, but left to their own devices their pure and simple society would have collapsed on its own.

    1. Tao Jonesing

      Kleptocracy is enabled by the continued simplification of the individual, who becomes less and less aware of the big picture as specialization increases. You can fool all of the people all of the time, if each person is ignorant of a substantial portion of reality. Indeed, I’d argue that the founders of neoliberalism (e.g., Friedman, Hayek and Lippmann) were well aware of how specialization could be exploited to break down the protections offered by society and make it easier to prey upon individuals.

      1. Hugh

        We are faced with blatant, massive, systemic corruption, cronyism, and criminality. Subtle references to criminality just don’t do it as an explanation for kleptocracy the defining process of our times.

        Looking at the comments below, I would also draw the distinction between complex: large, many parts, and many levels, and complex: difficult to understand and manage. I have never found the economy difficult to understand. I don’t think it is that difficult to manage either. I don’t see its complex form and content an impediment to either of these two things.

        Just because we have a kleptocracy doesn’t mean we were fated to have one. We could get rid of it tomorrow or even today. The kleptocrats are few and vulnerable whereas we are many. Complexity to me seems a convenient defense of the elites to preclude action against them and an equally convenient excuse of we the masses not to act.

        1. Michael H

          Hugh said: “Just because we have a kleptocracy doesn’t mean we were fated to have one. We could get rid of it tomorrow or even today. The kleptocrats are few and vulnerable whereas we are many. Complexity to me seems a convenient defense of the elites to preclude action against them and an equally convenient excuse of we the masses not to act.”

          Spot on, I couldn’t agree with you more. This is exactly what I’ve been trying to tell whoever will listen (friends, family, co-workers, etc). But too often it’s like banging my head against a wall. As state institutions in the US become little more than a way of delivering money to the ruling elite, we the people (the victims of all this crime), nevertheless have the criminals vastly outnumbered.

          We could act, we could stop them, but so many people either refuse to see that kleptocracy is destroying our country, or if they see it, then they’re in denial or believe nothing can be done. Or they prefer to discuss almost any irrelevant issue, as long as it’s not the *massive crimes* staring us all in the face, what you’ve correctly described as “kleptocracy the defining process of our times”.

          How much longer are the American people willing to allow a small band of criminals to loot our country, before we do whatever it takes to stop them?

          1. Elliot X

            Michael H: “How much longer are the American people willing to allow a small band of criminals to loot our country, before we do whatever it takes to stop them?”

            What is the breaking point? Or is there one? This is the only question that matters today.

            When asked question not long ago, Ralph Nader responded:

            “You have a tug of war with one side pulling. The corporate interests pull on the Democratic party the way they pull on the Republican Party. If you are a “least worst” voter, you don’t disturb John Kerry on the war, so you call off the anti-war demonstrations in 2004. You don’t want to disturb Obama because McCain is worse. And every four years both parties get worse. There is no pull. That is the dilemma of the “Nation” and the “Progressive” and other similar publications. There is no breaking point. What is the breaking point? The criminal war of aggression in Iraq? The escalation of the war in Afghanistan? Forty-five thousand people dying a year because they can’t afford health insurance? The hollowing out of communities and the movement of jobs to fascist and communist regimes overseas that know how to put the workers in their place? There is no breaking point. And when there is no breaking point, you have no moral compass.”

            And yet for telling the truth and pointing out things that should be obvious to anyone paying attention, Ralph Nader never gets interviewed by the corporate media, and has been made into a pariah.

            That’s why there is no breaking point.

        2. jonboinAR

          “…an equally convenient excuse of we the masses not to act.”

          That’s the first reason we’re so vulnerable. The bulk of the population is too lazy to participate, purely and simply. This includes most of my friends and family.

  30. Tao Jonesing

    Society is no more complex today than it was two hundred years ago, not in real terms.

    What has changed is not the complexity of our society, but the amount of specialization within it. Specialization yields experptise within a very narrow area while fostering ignorance of everything beyond that area. Worse still is the degradation of language as different specialists assign different meanings to the same terms without realizing it. When the same person was an economist, a lawyer and a philosopher (e.g., Adam Smith, the Buckaroo Banzai of his era), he used terms consistently and carefully.

    The ultimate result of specialization is that people from different disciplines communicate with each other and believe they have agreement when they really don’t. As the differences compound and create real, practical problems, eventually, people wake up to the fact that the world is nothing like they thought it was, and their brain chemistry flips the panic switch.

    Another way to consider what I’m saying is to view increasing specialization as adding layers of abstraction. Each layer of abstraction simplifies the problem space presented by abstracting away details that are presumed to be irrelevant to it. The problem is that as the total problem space is cut into thinner and thinner slices, it becomes harder and harder to integrate the output of those individual slices into an accurate solution for the total problem space because hidden discontinuities arise due to differences in the details that have been assumed away as exogneous to each slice.

    Now, one could view slicing the problem space into thinner and thinner specialties as increasing complexity, but the fact is that the problem space– that is, the problems that society faces and must solve on an ongoing basis– never changes, only our individual understanding of it does. The only reason society seems more complex is because every individual within society has been made more simple because of increasing specialization.

    1. sgt_doom

      “Society is no more complex today than it was two hundred years ago, not in real terms.”

      You’ve got to be 16 or 17 years of age, right?

      You just entered college, or community college, first year?

      That is a completely uneducated and moronic statement.

      ‘Nuff said….

      1. Tao Jonesing

        LOL. :-)

        People are people. Regardless of what belief systems you fill them with, they are basically the same in how they function and think.

        Fundamentally, people today are the same as people were thousands of years ago. Again, there have always been regional and cultural differences, but that does not change the fact that physically humanity has not evolved beyond where we were thousands of years ago.

        A society is merely a collection of individuals, and the fundamental problems facing individuals are no different today than they were thousands of years ago. How do we survive? How do we thrive?

        Specialization does not change the complexity of these problems, one way or the other. Specialization does increase the complexity of our problem solving while decreasing the complexity of the problem solvers, which ultimately increases uncertainty, which in turn creates the type of panic that crashes markets and collapses cultures.

        Every generation becomes enamored with the narcissistic notion that it is facing a unique crisis, that it is special. This pathology is particularly accute in declining empires such as ours, where ignorance is worn like a badge of honor because it so shiny you can see your own reflection in it.

        1. paper mac

          There are more people now than there were thousands of years ago, by orders of magnitude. More interconnected elements in a system yields a more complex system, by definition. It’s fine to say “people haven’t changed”, but that doesn’t actually tell you anything about the differences between societies today, and, say, those of our pre-agrarian forebears living in small communal groups, with little in the way of institutions, technologies, etc required to maintain their way of life. Denying that societies have varying levels of complexity is absurd.

        2. Maju

          Tao: you do have a strong point in the fact that people is essentially the same. Sgt. Doom cannot dismiss you the way he does because he’s not providing anything but a personal attack but Paper Mac is surely correct in the sense that the complexity of economy, technology, etc. is today much larger than was ever before.

          Oversimplifying a bit, there are three ages in humankind’s history: the age of hunting and gathering (about 95% of all our history), the age of farming and herding (incl. all Metal ages and even early Modern Age) and the age of industrial technology (just a couple of centuries or so). Each is a lot more complex than the previous one, and we can also think reasonably that there is a general trend of increase of complexity within these periods as time passes. Magdalenian is not the same as Oldowayan, the Renaissance is not the same as Megalithism and ultra-globalization in the 2000s is not the same as the times Robespierre or even Marx lived in.

          However, in spite of all this increase in complexity, we have not really changed much as species, and in that you are correct.

        3. Anonymous Jones

          Well, of course, we think our problems are special. They’re ours, aren’t they?

          And, of course, they are unique. They are by definition. But I agree that they may be very similar to problems faced in the past.

          Yes, people are people. The human machinery is basically the same. But staring in front of a computer screen every day, with access to more information than ever in the past, is different. Maybe not in some areas. But it is different. We should never discount the difference in circumstances, even if slight. The chaotic results of similar systems with only slightly different inputs should be proof enough.

  31. William C

    This is a very interesting discussion with high quality contributions from all. I confess I incline to agree with Richard Kline that Tainter, as described by Yves, seems too simple. So much of these debates can be semantic – what do we mean by a ‘society’? I could construct an argument that ‘Western society’ has been successfully, and with few interruptions, growing in power ever since Henry the Fowler defeated the Magyars in 933 – first in Western Europe and then spilling into the Americas, Australasia etc. Also Tainter seems to look at societies as isolated entities. Martin Wolff’s article in today’s FT on the current rise of the East provides a useful antidote.

    1. Foppe

      But what seems to underlie these semantic issues are methodological problems (I tried to point these out in my own post, but I might not have done successfully).

      1. William C


        I thought your comments were excellent but I had not picked up this particular nuance.

    2. Sufferin' Succotash

      “Tainter seems to look at societies as isolated
      A major weakness, particularly in view of the growing archeological evidence of interaction among societies in the ancient world, e.g. Sumer & Egypt.

  32. Zachary

    I bought and read Tainter’s book, and from the experience learned a valuable lesson. Anymore before making an expensive book purchase, I carefully read the “1″ and “2″ ratings in the Amazon reviews as well as all other independent reviews I can locate.

    There are some very good “Collapse” books out there, but Tainter’s isn’t one of them.

    As I said in my own Amazon review of this piece of crap, if you want to read a quality book on the subject, you could do worse than start with Jared Diamond.

  33. Jim

    Over the years I have been obsessed with the linkages between culture and social structure. I have few answers but many questions.

    Do particular structures of power construct particular selves?

    What is the relationship between ecclesiastical discipline(i.e. the confession, inquisitional procedures, administrative institutions) and the modern disciplines of the market and the state?

    Is the modern self tied up with the idea that we need not submit to any power higher or lower than our own?

    Does culture have to do with containing the infinite desire to be and have everything?

    Is self-confidence inseparable from submission to some type of credal order?

    What is the realtionship between authority and destructive human impulses?

    Is all true authority self-interdictory (i.e. is there a liberating dynamic in submission to a higher authority?

    Is service to the political cause and creed of a charasmatic politcal figure simply a cloak to cover service to his or her authority?

  34. sgt_doom

    Jared Diamond is a wastrel not even in the same category as a Joseph Tainter.

    You should stick with the H1-B loving, offshoring, where Bezos the Junk King rules above all, and falsely and fraudulently pumped up the value of his faux corporate bookseller, when he approached Wall Street in the ’90s for evermore financing, claiming he had a market in Europe, when all those dumbfounded Europeans kept receiving unordered books from Amazon, which they either tried to ship back (frequently at their own expense) or kept.

    Just check with UPS and Federal Express about those orders back then.

  35. wb

    Here’s something for all you super-smart folks to think about, when considering ‘the future’….

    “One of the most respected, senior and widely published professors of psychology, Daryl Bem of Cornell, has just published an article that suggests that people — ordinary people — can be altered by experiences they haven’t had yet. Time, he suggests, is leaking. The Future has slipped, unannounced, into the Present. And he thinks he can prove it.”

  36. Zachary

    “Jared Diamond is a wastrel not even in the same category as a Joseph Tainter.”

    It’s certainly true opinion forums exist because opinions of individuals vary so very much.

    I have a neighbor who told me about Global Warming last summer. I was informed it’s a false scientific doctrine because he – personally – doesn’t believe it. Not at all an uncommon idea these days – that believing something makes it real, and not believing something makes it unreal! Creationism, anybody?

    Since my copy of the Tainter book went into the paper recycling box, I’m reduced to cut/pasting Jared Diamond’s comments on Tainter’s dismissal of environmental destruction as a trigger for a civilization’s collapse.

    “This question, why societies make disastrous decisions and destroy themselves, is one that not only surprised my UCLA undergraduates, but also astonishes professional historians studying collapses of past societies. The most cited book on the subject of the collapse of societies is by the historian, Joseph Tainter. It’s entitled The Collapse of Complex Societies. Joseph Tainter, in discussing ancient collapses, rejected the possibility that those collapses might be due to environmental management because it seemed so unlikely to him. Here’s what Joseph Tainter said: “As it becomes apparent to the members or administrators of a complex society that a resource base is deteriorating, it seems most reasonable to assume that some rational steps are taken towards a resolution. With their administrative structure and their capacity to allocate labor and resources, dealing with adverse environmental conditions may be one of the things that complex societies do best. It is curious that they would collapse when faced with precisely those conditions that they are equipped to circumvent.” Joseph Tainter concluded that the collapses of all these ancient societies couldn’t possibly be due to environmental mismanagement, because they would never make these bad mistakes. Yet it’s now clear that they did make these bad mistakes.”

    (This was in my Amazon review before some editor hacked it out. Yes, you’ve got to watch Amazon. They routinely alter reviews, and I’ve had them delete my unfavorable reviews which threatened their sales (and profits) on a new release.)

    Easter Island is an example of the world writ small. Some stone-age people discovered a paradise, then proceeded to destroy it. They didn’t know any better, but we do. That is, those of us who aren’t blinded by some nutty doctrine know better.

    Complex things can and do work – just fine. The problem which arises is when evildoers and/or numbskulls are allowed to throw sand into the innards of a complex works.

    IMO the current mess in the US mortgage system is a prime example. Complex, detailed; that it was. It also functioned very well. When lawless and greedy people were allowed to start taking shortcuts, and suffered no penalties for that, a complex system became horribly fouled up.

  37. gizzardboy

    It seems to me, that John Michael Greer tackles the issue of the cost of comlexity in a more down-to-earth manner. He asks: What will happen when fossil fuels become scarce to non-existant? His books, The Long Descent and The Ecotechnic Future, as well as his blog, The Archdruid Report, address this question. A whole lot of what is taken for granted today will have to disappear, including complexity. I’m in the middle of reading this now, but I find it very well thought through.

    1. Zachary

      Your suggestions have caused me to spend an interesting hour tracking down John Michael Greer.

      My first discovery was that he doesn’t really believe GW is a problem.

      The second is that he seems to be looking forward to a future where society regresses to the “good old days”.

      To wit:

      “What nearly always gets missed in these debates is the fact that it’s quite possible to have a technologically advanced and humane society without, for example, having electricity on demand from sockets on every wall across the length and breadth of a continent, or mortgaging our future to allow individuals to zoom around in hopelessly inefficient personal vehicles on an extravagant system of highways. The sooner we start thinking about what kinds and forms of energy wind turbines are actually best suited to produce – rather than trying to forcie them onto the Procrustean bed of an electrical grid that was designed to exploit the very idiosyncratic kinds of energy you get from fossil fuel supplies – the sooner windpower can be put to use building an energy system for the future, rather than propping up a failing one from the past. What stands in the way of this recognition, of course, is the emotional power of today’s ideology of progress, the purblind assumption that the way we do things must be the best possible way to do them.”

      Greer clearly disapproves of “electricity on demand from sockets on every wall”. IMO most people will not agree. I certainly don’t!

      Since tens of thousands of massive wind turbines installed in the “good” places around the US would provide all the electricity we need, he doesn’t want to do that. I’ve no idea what he has in mind as an alternative, but at a guess it would be tiny homestead wind units towering above the 1,000 sq. ft. garden plots where for each person in the family where we’d grow a year’s supply of food.

      “The claim that intensive organic gardening can feed one person year round on less than 1000 square feet is documented in detail in David Duhon’s book One Circle, out of print and not always easy to find….”

      To each his own, but I’m getting too old to become a voluntary peasant grubbing in my biointensive garden for many hours a day to grow my strictly vegetarian food supply.

      If our society does collapse, I may have to attempt something like that, but it hardly represents any kind of ideal for me.

      1. gizzardboy

        I believe what Greer would say, is that had we got going in a serious way back in thbe 1970′s, we might have had a soft landing when the petroleum runs out. But when it is this late in the game and we only have token measures up and running and a fight on every small alternative energy project, we are going to run out of time for a “just like today” energy future when we finally realize there is almost no more oil. It’s not whether he likes it or not, whether it will be an ideal future or not, but how it is likely to play out. I appreciate that you are doing your research, Zachary. Get The Ecotechnic Future and read the first few chapters; you will find it worthwhile.

        1. Zachary

          Well sir, at your suggestion I bookmarked Greer’s site. First complete post of his I read was the one extolling the virtues of Tarpaper Shacks!

          I jumped though the hoops and started a google account so I could post there. It was a long post, and among other things I remarked about a Chuck Burr he’d spoken of early on in that post.

          … “Burr cited hard numbers from a representative case study – his own solar-powered home – to show why high-tech renewables are at most a way station partway down the Long Descent. His argument will be familiar to readers of this blog: the photovoltaic system that powers his home won’t generate enough electricity in its lifetime to both account for the power that goes into making and maintaining it, and provide enough electricity to maintain a modern lifestyle for its end user.”…

          Mr. Burr had somehow gotten $50,000 worth of photovoltaics with somebody else paying for 92% of the bill. He proceeded to try to use them for SPACE ELECTRIC HEAT! That didn’t work, so the whole concept of photovoltaic systems is a failure.

          Among other things I remarked about the uselessness of solar cooking boxes in most places, and listed a wide range of real alternatives.

          My post was duly noted, and there was a note that it would be reviewed by the great man himself before being added to the comments. Next morning (today) my post wasn’t there. Well, since something COULD have gone wrong, I tried again. Six times I tried. Turns out that in each case the Visual Verification failed. Banned before my first post was published!

          Mr. Greer is a big fish in a little pond. He simply will not allow either disagreement or evidence that returning to abject poverty isn’t necessary. The Archdruid is a dishonest and fanatical dude.

          Savage ones are out there too. I’d invite folks to check out a book at Amazon titled “To Serve Man”. Yes, those swine are willing to peddle a cookbook for human flesh.

          Heavily armed pinheads abound. Their blogs advise readers to beware of pitiful refugees with emaciated children and starving babies. Showing the slightest bit of human decency is a big mistake.

          The decent into the abyss shows no sign of abating.

      2. PP Mazzini

        By advocating drastic simplification/devolution, Greer is using a sledge hammer to kill a fly. It isn’t necessary to to back to the “good old days” of the pre-industrial, agrarian economy. There are folks all around the world (primarily not in North America) that are happily living on many fewer resources, on a per capita basis, than we consume here. The problem is that getting everyone to adjust to that level of “new normal” resources consumption is going to result in a lot of inequities, and *perceived* hardship. That is going to be socially disruptive, and the transition could get messy and/or bloody.

        P.P. Mazzini

  38. Wolf10

    I prefer the deciders must suffer thesis.

    “…One of the predictors of a happy versus an unhappy [social] outcome has to do with the role of the elite, or the decision-makers or the politicians or the rich people in the society. If the society is structured so that the decision-makers themselves suffer from the consequences of their decisions then they are motivated to make decisions that are good for the whole society. Whereas, if the decision-makers can make decisions that insulate them from the rest of society then they are likely to make decisions that are bad for the rest of society….I would like to see the rich suffer even more and the politicians even more.”

    Jared Diamond, from an interview with Paul Solman on PBS Newshour broadcast on 2/14/2009

  39. rd

    I am an engineer. I design things: some complex; some simple.

    Bridges are a classic example of complex systems that keep getting bigger and more complex. However, periodically they get so big and complex that they either collapse or they are too expensive and time-consuming to build. At that point, the engineering profession develops a new type of bridge. So we have plank bridges that became arch bridges then truss bridges, then suspension bridges and then cable-stayed bridges, and sometimes floating bridges. (Henry Petroski has written good stuff on this subject).

    The key is that engineers learn and adapt to prevent future failure by going back to basics and rethinking the concept, often going back to basic principles. This appears to occur rarely in the political and financial arena.

    When 9/11 occurred, the government response was to create a new agency (Homeland Security) with a good buzzword title and more layers of bureaucracy to oversee the layers of bureaucracy that failed. So we have increased cost and probably reduced overall effectiveness.

    When Enron occurred, Sarbanes-Oxley was touted as the solution. We have just completed a major financial crisis where clearly numerous companies had faulty, if not fraudulent books, yet it doesn’t seem like Sarbanes-Oxley has been relevant to prosecutions. However, it does appear that Sarbox has been effective at convincing Facebook not to do an IPO, so it appears to be having a negative influence on capital formation without the benefits of preventing financial fraud.

    The US has become a Rube Goldberg machine of laws, agencies, and regulations. A story on NPR about micro-distilleries ( indicates that over a dozen agencies regulate micro-distilleries, yet it appears that a trillion dollar business in creating mortgage-backed securities appears to have flown largely below the regulation horizon. The local hairdresser is probably licensed while the person running a multi-billion dollar pension fund probably is not.

    The US needs to have a serious discussion about the social contract between government, business, and the public. It needs to throw out the myriad of unnecessary agencies, laws, and regulations that just get in the way and focus on big-picture things that are important. Government has firm rules against committing assault and murder but generally does not regulate day-to-day normal behavior. Somehow we have to re-establish that type of basic principle back into the rest of the system to re-simplify it to make it more robust.

  40. Septeus7

    I don’t think it is complexity itself that is the problem but the kind interdependency created by globalism that producing our problems. Evolutionary Biology has studied the evolution of systems that get ever more complexity however living systems can be so robust as to exist for 10′s of millions of years where as institution of human empire are but a blink of an eye compared to what nature does seemly with ease.

    I believe that answer to solving Joseph Tainter “paradox of complex soceities” finds it’s answer understand the physics of evolutionary biology and basing our social engineering not on the “economics of markets” but based on sound principles in actual physical science. This paper ( I believe shows the problem with the very idea of globalism or Imperialism from such a physical standpoint.

    Development of robust long term economic development is analogous to principles that create biological robustness i.e. the feature of modularity in design. Neoliberal globalization, by breakdowning local production and national economic independence using “free trade” for reasons of so-called efficiency and global cartelism is akin to ripping out all the firedoors on a ship. Naturally, because of this and floating rate system the fire is truly global maximizing the damage.

    Biological systems feature modularity because it prevent the spread of disease and the greater biodiversity allows for easier evolution in terms of population dynamics. So once again we find that “economics” violates the laws of sound engineering, ecology, and evolutionary biology. It is a pseudo-scientific cult that needs to be ended and a new system needs to be built from the ground up by biologists and engineers starting with the accounting system which presently creates fraud.

    Lord Keynes identified (unbeknownst to him) the principle fraud of the accounting method determining economic systems when he stated

    “If — for whatever reason — the rate of interest cannot fall as fast as the marginal efficiency of capital would fall with a rate of accumulation corresponding to what the community would choose to save at a rate of interest equal to the marginal efficiency of capital in conditions of full employment, then even a diversion of the desire to hold wealth towards assets, which will in fact yield no economic fruits whatever, will increase economic well-being. In so far as millionaires find their satisfaction in building mighty mansions to contain their bodies when alive and pyramids to shelter them after death, or, repenting of their sins, erect cathedrals and endow monasteries or foreign missions, the day when abundance of capital will interfere with abundance of output may be postponed. “To dig holes in the ground,” paid for out of savings, will increase, not only employment, but the real national dividend of useful goods and services. It is not reasonable, however, that a sensible community should be content to remain dependent on such fortuitous and often wasteful mitigations when once we understand the influences upon which effective demand depends. ”

    But this a fraud because it assumes that spending “digging holes” is a economically “neutral” activity that has no immediate effect on capital. It assumes that the increase in spending activity which will result in the increases of equal worth as determined by standard accounting. But digging holes is not a neutral because it physically impossible for any activity to be “neutral” you need to shovels, feed the workers, and buy the transport for the works as well using fuel. Every physical activity depletes some physical capital or labor value but it not deducted.

    In terms of the current MMT accounting system the activities of building a factory out of private savings is the same as public works project digging holes and filling them up again because the increase in total economic spending marks up the balances in accounts exactly the same way.

    However, the physical cost of capital degradation isn’t included, also the opportunity costs aren’t reflected in the balance sheets. A easier and neutral way to increase spending and demand is simply to have spend everyone time limited debit cards which will be credited every time there is shortfall in demand.

    The lack of MMT financial accounting to measure the effects of the use of physical capital represents a fraud. The marking up people’s account based on digging holes and saying it is the same a building a functional factory is the broken window fallacy hidden by the accounting system.

    If economically destructive activity increases demand then War should be the most efficient means of lifting us out of depression but this absurd.

    MMT economists have no understanding of what public spending should be sent on in order to offset the immediate cost of capital degradation, environment damage, and opportunity costs because they have no theory of production.

    Economic reality is at least trinary in it’s dimensions and thus we have reached the limits of a system based on binary accounting. In order to factor in the physical and political dimensions without computer trading schemes and FIRE sector scams messing up the information about stocks and flows and thereby mispricing things in markets and even creating phony market rackets we need a new system.

    I suggest the creation of an trial entry accounting system based on the ideas of a metacurrency that employs what I call vectored credits and debits as opposed to the scalar quanties of credit and debits we use today.

    I am wondering if Yves or perhaps Steve Keen would be interested in constructing such a system in order to deal with problems of why “Credit money fails” and why regulation doesn’t last long enough to prevent systematic decay.

    I also would to ask everyone including Yves if any economist has every considered building a higher order accounting method and what they found upon investigation?

    Seriously? Has anyone done this or I’m just crazy for even thinking it?

    I’m unaware of any such proposals and given the issue of complexity I believe I have come full circle on Taintner’s complexity collapse theory so I will end here.

    1. Maju

      Sounds like an interesting idea, why crazy? We need new economic tools and this might be a path worth exploring.

      Though personally I’d favor accountancy in terms of energy rather than money. That way some of the real ecological costs hidden in monetary value could be accounted for (at least better and more quickly). What’s the point of shipping tons of fruit across the ocean in wasteful airplanes when you can grow most of them locally (or not consume them at all)?

      Yet, using vectorial instead of mere scalar quantities may be more insightful about how this energy is spent. I’d have to see a more clear description of the hypothesis to weight it properly anyhow.

  41. James Rockford

    Totally missing from the comments, and from the thesis that inspired the comments, was the controlling influence of an honest monetary system. While it was hinted at, it seems its importance was not fully understood. Or was it?

    Perhaps a re-reading of Adam Smith’s, “The Wealth of Nations”, would enlighten as he emphasized “exchange” as the pathway to prosperity, and in his time exchange meant an agreement of equivalence, whereas today most exchanges are based on a flawed medium of fiat currencies.

    Most historians point to the adulteration and outright counterfeiting of mediums of exchange as the single issue that has toppled empires. It is quite strange that this is not even mentioned here, leading to the suspicion that this is not a work born out of ignorance, but rather one that is assisting in propping up fraudulent monetary systems. Accordingly, seeing whether or not this comment posts will be an educational experience.

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